With the continuing popularity of test cutting with longswords as a way to improve sword fighting skills, and as a competitive event in its own right, a lot of folks are interested in finding a longsword to cut with. This can be confusing as there are many options representing many places and cultures and a period covering several hundred of years. In this blog we will aim to give folks who don't have a lot of experience with sharp longswords a framework for considering what type of sharp to invest in for cutting.
What are you trying to accomplish by test cutting?
This is the first question you should ask yourself. Are you a martial artist trying to add to your understanding of combat? Are you highly motivated to win cutting competitions? Or do you just want to cut stuff with a sword because it's awesome (oh yeah, it's awesome!). Each of these motivations carries with it different considerations that will influence what kind of sharp sword you will be happiest with.
For the Historical European Martial Artist interested in deepening your understanding of your art, one of your primary considerations should be matching the sharp sword you choose to the combat tradition you are studying. Take a close look at the weapons in the major treatises the you study. What kind of blade shape is more common? Was the sword primarily intended for armored or unarmored use? How big is the sword in proportion to the people in the illustrations? For example, in the plate below from Fiore de Liberi's late 14th century fight book (from Wiktentauer), the sword is highly tapered to a fine point and is short enough that the point can be easily put n the opponents face while holding onto his elbow. The grip is also relatively short compared to many training swords today.
Fiore also includes a great deal of armored combat in his treatise, and many of the swords in that section appear to be of the same type used in unarmored combat.
Based on the time period and shape of these swords, a type XV longsword would be a good match for this style of combat. These swords feature sharp profile taper, a rigid diamond-sectioned blade, and were very popular during the period Fiore was alive. An excellent example of this type is the Arms and Armor Black Prince Sword, a replica of the sword that likely belonged to Edward of Woodstock circa 1370.
Due to our friendship with the late Ewart Oakeshott we had the great honor to hold, examine, and minutely reproduce this sword from the original, making our Black Prince Sword an excellent piece for folks interested in historical accuracy. While swords like this one are well-suited to Fiore's art, they can be challenging for someone who is just beginning to cut tatami mats and other difficult targets due to the geometry of the blade. Make no mistake, these swords are perfectly capable of delivering devastating cuts, you just need to have excellent form and edge alignment, just as knights of the late 14th century did. So, if your goal is to fight like those knights, this is the sword for you.
For those interested in winning cutting competitions
There are three primary factors that make a sword excel in test cutting: The relative thinness of the blade, the relative width of the blade, and the wieldiness of the sword. Generally speaking, swords with wider, thinner blades will cut with less effort and will tend to 'self align' if they strike the target at a sub-optimal angle. For compound cuts a sword needs to change direction easily and track well. It is these qualities that account for the prevalence of type XVIIIc longswords in competitions over the past several years. Our Leeds Castle Sword really epitomizes all of these qualities. It is a very close replica of the widest and lightest of the so-called Alexandria Arsenal swords. It tracks very well, and despite its size it changes direction easily and cuts very well. However, these were a relatively uncommon type of sword optimized for a very specific context of warfare against unarmored foes on crusade. This link features some context, history, and a video of thrusting and cutting through cloth armor with this sword.
In a similar vein, if you are interested in fighting like a German knight of the late 15th century, then our Durer longsword is an excellent choice. It is a type XVIII longsword optimized for hewing, and is highly accurate to that late medieval period. For fighters interested in this same period, but who might be on the shorter side, we suggest our English Longsword. It is a very efficient cutter, and a beautiful looking and feeling type XVIII longsword. Both of these swords have thinner blades than type XV swords like the Black Prince, which makes them more forgiving cutters. All three are very maneuverable and well suited to the compound cuts currently featured in many competitions.
Cutting begins at 3:15
For those who just want to cut stuff with a two-hander
Sometimes you just want to use a really big sword to cleave the heck of out something. We like to think of this as sword therapy, (also an excellent excuse why you need another sword). Two handed swords can be challenging to maintain edge alignment with, but when you get it right there is nothing like the feel of a clean cut with a five foot long sword.
Cutting with a rapier?
For those of you who have been thinking "that's all well and good, but what if I want a real challenge?" If you hone your skills you can absolutely cut tatami with a high quality rapier. The narrow, relatively thick, diamond sectioned blades of these swords are quite unforgiving and require substantial expertise. Check out this review by Patrick Kelly featuring a cutting video by Phil at Aikidoka, from over on Sword Buyers Guide.
Arms and Armor German Rapier, so you think you can cut?
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.