ARMA Special Report

By Belinda Hertzbjhbio.jpg (4144 bytes)

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Sword 2000
was a spectacular success. Without a doubt, Sword 2000 was one of the most important events ever put together for the exploration of the Medieval sword. For two and a half days over September 15-17, the beautiful camp Ashokan isolated in the Catskills outside of Kingston, New York, was the setting for a gathering of over 75 blade and sword fanatics focusing on the ethnographic study of historical cutting swords. This was the 2nd exclusively "Sword" event in 5 years sponsored by the New England Bladesmith’s Guild and the guild’s 19th annual gathering.

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Dan Maragni gives a lecture

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John offers an impromptu
demo on grip change in cutting
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ARMA demo

This was not an event concerned with mass production replicas, movie or fantasy swords, or theatrical and sporting blades, but only functional weapons –real swords. This was not simply a convention of collectors or historical arms dealers or of historical fencers and reenactors, although all were represented, it was a group if individuals who recognize the importance of studying the historical significance and creation of the weapons and their usage. The central idea stressed repeatedly throughout the event was the study of the sword not as simply an historic artifact or icon, but the sword in its historical role as a technological and military construct, or as was repeatedly said, the sword as a long-bladed hand tool. Topics included the cutting sword in relation to its technology, engineering, forensics, anthropology, and battlefield applications.

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Dan Maragni gives a demo on smithing


Event coordinators, Dr. Lee Jones and Dan Maragni did a fantastic job of bringing together a range of some highly knowledgeable persons in the field of European swords examining the swords from all angles of history, usage, design and manufacture. The capacity crowd of attendees were treated to informal discussions and trading, bartering, buying and selling of blades and related items, tasty onsite meals, and open sessions lasting nearly until dawn before retiring to the bunkhouse. The summer-camp style gathering of Sword 2000 encouraged communication and genuineness among all the attendees and extended to a Saturday night bonfire following the tempering of a blade. The event’s constant schedule was composed of a combination of slide shows on sword typology and archaeology, martial demonstrations of test cutting and fighting skills, and assorted antique blades made from 1000 BCE (!)  to 1950 were also displayed in hands-on viewing sessions. This hands-on session gave the gathering a personal sense of discovery far more than a typical visit to a museum and rounded out the very unique two and a half non-stop days of sword study.

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Working with hot steel

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The craftsman's skills


The gathering’s focus was the Medieval Sword –and specifically cutting blades. For the collectors, artists, bladesmiths, and sword enthusiasts present the sole interest was in the ancient craft of historical sword production rather than in modern methods. For the first time, a unique approach to the subject was offered by this combination of quantitative and holistic aspects of examining and evaluating historical specimens (plus historically accurate modern reproductions). The assembled metallurgists, blade makers, and engineers had opportunity to discuss the science of Medieval cutting swords while the artists, craftsmen, and practitioners, provided their own perspectives on design and application.

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The magic of flame and steel
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Paul Champagne gets into it
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A master at work
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Forging a new blade
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The night broken by the red glow of a sword's birth

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The finished product emerges red hot

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Letting the charcoal
fire work its magic
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The tempering process of a blade in heated oil
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Philip Baldwin
sharpens his
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John tries out a two-hander from c. 1550 (definitely not "his" weapon)


ARMA Director and chief instructor, John Clements, was invited to demonstrate aspects of Medieval European sword use. Along with Deputy Director and senior ARMA student, Jeff Basham, John put on two demonstrations of various sword fundamentals placing focus on functionality and design. John and Jeff also emphasized how function affected forms as well as vice versa. The use of single-hand short swords and shields as well as armor was addressed as were differences in military and civilian blades. John commented, "With the real swordmakers, we emphasized real sword fighting. We stressed how movies and television sword fights repeatedly misrepresent the handling of the weapons and distort how swords actually function, so that these pervasive (and influential) depictions can’t be looked on for inspiration." The audience was in total agreement.
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A great day for swordplay

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Sword vs. Long-sword

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Sword vs.rapier

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Examining a steel blunt replica
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Dr.Jones masquerades
On Friday evening the event began with bladesmith, Dan Maragni, self proclaimed sword nut and consultant to the industry cutlery, presenting the opening slide show on "Physical Characteristics of European Cutting Swords 250 BC-1200 AD". Dan gave a lively and often humorous discussion of cross-sections, weights, profiles and hilt-construction techniques used for cutting swords from the Celts to the Normans. Later that night Dan gave the first demonstration on "Bloomery Smelting" –a brief explanation, which was the primary method of iron and steel production in the periods under discussion, followed by video examples of contemporary Japanese and African bloomery smelting.
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Dr. Jones covers sword types


On Saturday, Dr. Lee Jones, a forensic pathologist and avid sword enthusiast, presented a lecture on "Early Evolution of the European Longsword" - an illustrated review of the evolution of the weapon from its origins to the close of the Medieval period (complete with slides of Oakeshott’s typology and sample pieces). Afterwards, the event moved outside again where Dan Maragni gave a demonstration of "European Sword Forging" - covering the techniques used to create a typical European style fullered blade using modern equipment and materials. Dan pounded out a sword shape from steel to the intense gaze of the assembled onlookers.

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The nature of steel


Following this, John and Jeff demonstrated a reconstruction of ARMA’s Medieval European fighting skills and discussed the current revival of Western martial culture. Jeff and John conducted an introduction to European sword arts of the 1400s & 1500s and gave a two-hour comparison between Medieval and Renaissance methods. "The enthusiastic response from the event guests and presenters was quite a rush," Jeff said. John commented, "I was proud to have been a part. I was surprised at how well received we were and by what a reputation for serious competence ARMA already had among the attendees." "We learned a lot and we shared a lot," John observed.

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Paul and his prize chunk

of smelted iron ore


After lunch, sword-maker, Paul Champagne, gave a presentation on "Evolution of the Japanese Sword" - discussing the physical characteristics of the Japanese sword and how it changed over time to adapt to changes in armor and fighting styles. Paul is a dynamic speaker who made a point to stress the myths and hype of Japanese swords in contrast to the reality of how they developed and were produced. Paul is widely known for forging the katana recently used by master swordsman, Toshishiro Obata, to set a new record for test-cutting on a period helm. Paul says first love however is European swords and it is the accurate reproduction of these which his skills are currently focused on.

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Paul Champagne compairs blades


After his lecture, Paul Champagne gave an outside demonstration of "Japanese Sword Forging" techniques adapted to modern equipment and materials. Using the prearranged furnace and tools, Paul went to work under the watchful eyes of the surrounding attendees. Following this, practitioner Tom Walter conducted "Tameshigiri" - a discussion and demonstration of traditional Japanese test cutting using the katana on dried bamboo and wet straw mats.

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A sample 2x4 cut 3/4ths through by Toshishiro Obata using Paul's blade


Following dinner, Dr. Jones offered insight into "Ethnographic Swords: Persistence, Reoccurrence and Innovation" – a presentation focusing on the persistence and reoccurrence of the straight, double edged form of sword in many cultures and also considered many of the unique forms which have developed in various cultures at various times. For this, and the subsequent viewing of North African blades, Dr. Jones dressed up in a an authentic garb of a modern Saharan Bedouin tribe that still to this day wear swords as part of their daily dress.

Following this, bladesmith, Tim Zowada, gave a fascinating lecture and slide presentation on "High Tech. Heat Treatment" focusing on the tempering of long blades using kilns, salt pots and digital temperature controllers. Tim set up a furnace, created charcoal, and began the process while flame and sparks flickered and flew into the darkness. Immediately following Tim Zowada, Phillip Baldwin demonstrated "Low Tech. Heat Treatment" of long blades using a simple firebrick forge and charcoal. The attendees watched as the blade was soaked in oil and tempered over the open pit furnace.

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Cleaving a dead branch

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Hacking through a standing post


On Sunday, following breakfast, Dan Maragni presented a slide show entitled "Violent, Bloody Death" - a sobering look at the contemporary literature of eyewitness accounts of the effects of edged weapons on the human body and a sampling of slides showing these effects on ancient skeletal remains from the famed Wisby find (including showing a reproduction of one the infamous "Wisby skulls").  Dr. Jones offered his thoughts on the physiology of sword wounds throughout the weekend. Afterwards, John & Jeff gave a second fighting demonstration discussing reconstruction of Renaissance blade forms and their associated fighting techniques.

The exchange of information between active users and serious producers was dynamic and extremely helpful all around on each side. John added, "It was great to be able to finally meet fellow sword nuts such as Dan and Lee who I have been corresponding with for so long and only knew through emails and phone calls." Jeff observed, "It was very exciting to be on hand and asked at every step of the way to offer insight into the tools based on study of how they were really used. These craftsmen had no doubt their product was intended to be a real sword and really capable of holding up to historical abuse. They could care less about wall-hanger and fantasy pieces. It was honestly very exciting."

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Examining antique blades

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Actual ancient & Medieval swords on display


At one point during the weekend, John also got to test cut with a very highly accurate replica Norman sword prototype and give feedback to the makers (thereby fulfilling one of the very aspects stressed throughout the weekend –the interaction of experienced maker with skilled user). "Yes, I killed several pieces of hard wood –maple, birch, cherry, sacrificing 6 or 8 of them to further our study. This sword was one of the absolute best replicas I have ever used, hilt and blade combined. Any time I’m asked to abuse a good blade I’m thrilled, test-cutting with one this superb was a highlight of the weekend for me," said John. Another of the gathering’s highlights was the chance to witness actual smelting of raw iron ore into useable nuggets; see these turned into steel, and witness steel bars heated and forged into blades which were later tempered and finally honed sharp. It was an amazing process of creation which still retains an element of "magic". To then be able to handle the final (un-hilted) blade and even try a hand cutting with it was truly unique.

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In the viewing room

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Although the overall focus of the event was Medieval European blades designed for cutting, the weekend included a wide range of ethnographic blades. On-hand were varieties of antique weapons ranging from North Africa, East Africa, the Middle East, Asia Minor, Turkey, Central Asia, Indo-Persia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the South Pacific, Nepal, Burma, China, Japan, and South America. One of the highlights was the presentation of several blades in excess of 1000 years old including actual Celtic and Roman weapons. Several examples of Viking, Germanic, and Norman pieces were also presented from private collections. Some were in excavated condition, and others were still battle-worthy. The swordmakers swarmed over the weapons with scales, calipers, and rulers measuring cross-sections, weights, tapers, balance points, etc. John and Jeff contented themselves with hefting them, posing, and swinging a few around. As Jeff exclaimed, "Finally, I got to handle real swords!"

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Real 17th century basket-hilt broadsword with 16th  century German blade

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"It's definitely you"

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As John observed, "I was amazed at how much there was to learn. I have never professed any knowledge of swordsmithing, blademaking or metallurgy, (I can't even repair my loose hilts). Being in the presence of such expert craftsmen and experienced artists was incredible. As practitioners and researchers, as martial swordsmen it was a thrill." Another thrill was learning (no big surprise) how virtually everything we’ve seen in the movies regarding how swords are made is garbage. The actual process is much different. There’s no pouring of molten metal and not as much banging on a red-hot blade, plus the tempering process is delicate and slow. Another rare opportunity was in witnessing a sword sharpening. Blades were polished using both blade on stone and stone on blade methods and the differences between knife and sword edges were discussed.

For the first time ever, a meeting of expertise in history, construction, and application of Medieval swords was brought together for a weekend of intense exploration starting after 8 am and going on past midnight. The entire range of swords were examined from their definition and idea, to their metallurgy, technical geometry, edge-configuration, hilt design, wound physiology, and methods and techniques of application. It was a significant achievement. John noted, "Given the event’s success plans are underway to host another similar one very soon."

The triangle of knowledge is now complete: practitioners, scholars, and swordmakers are finally coming together to learn about real swords. That was what Sword 2000 was all about!

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John & Jeff doing counters
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Discussing real range
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Practice in the woods
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Practice on a hill
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