I had a nice conversation with a new customer last week who was trying to decide what kind of sword to buy. He started the conversation with "I need a real sword..." and mentioned "battle ready, real combat and home defense". These are all terms we see crop up when looking at swords on the internet. These are all pretty meaningless when you are looking at pieces from solid makers with good reps. These phrases usually appear in lower quality sword sales pitches striving to convince you a cheap sword is just as good as a higher quality piece.
When at shows or events with the public we are often asked to compare our swords against others in these terms. When the person os interested we will dive deep on all the details of medieval swords and what we do to replicate these qualities today. When they are less open to challenge some of their beliefs of what a "real sword is" we talk about or sturdy materials and standing behind our product.
Our caller was very interested in how we went about creating our replicas and we had a great chat about swords. Customer expectations for attributes and functions of a high quality sword can vary greatly so what, as a new sword buyer should you look at when considering your next sword.
The idea of what is a real sword in the public mind is often confused by everything from the Home Shopping Network to Movies and in recent times self proclaimed experts on the web. While this has been challenging to those producing good swords it is also more widely understood by scholars and the informed public how a sword was really expected to work in period. A great improvement in the last two decades in the historical use and construction of the sword has resulted in a knowledgeable sword buyer having the best choices they have ever had and a higher quality market place in general.
The "idea" of a real or battle ready sword has always been attractive to popular culture with various Internet personalities and TV hosts cleaving cement blocks in twain, chopping down trees, or hacking at any variety of themed targets to 'test' the sword. Now, this may be entertaining, but we would argue that a piece of sharpened steel's ability to carry out these tasks more a demonstration of the user than a test of a high quality, historically accurate, or even a reasonably 'good' sword.
What to look for in a good replica sword
A good sword balances the qualities of lethality, useability and functionality in its design. There is no such thing as a "best Sword". Different attributes can be emphasized such as thrusting over cutting or maximizing reach but these all come with drawbacks that can be exploited by opponents. One can try to balance all these factors equally and you will get a good sword as well but one that does not excel in any one attribute. As with so many aspects of the martial arts a well rounded approach provides opportunity but only if one uses it in the proper way. Swinging a small sword two handed will probably not get you far against a pike square.
At Arms and Armor we think that modern replica swords should be built for the same functions that historical swords were built for. A focus on preventing yourself from being killed, harming your opponent, training to do both of these things, and giving aesthetic enjoyment through beauty of form and elegance of handling are a mission we feel strongly about.
When discussing with our customer what historical swords were like he was surprised by light in weight the piece were. Understanding weight balance and grip size all go into to making a sword not just to kill one's opponent, but to provide protection to its wielder and allow ease of use. A primary advantage of swords over many other weapons is that they are great for both offensive and defensive actions. To much weight, poor balance, infirm grip or unwieldy balance an make it difficult for even a skilled combatant to protect themselves from counter attacks. Even large swords like our 15th Century two hander below needs to follow these characteristics.
In fact, most longswords weigh between 2.5 and 3.5 pounds. Our English Longsword, weighs 2.6 pounds and is a great cutter that moves like an extension of your arms, making it possible to both attack and defend with great speed and efficiency.
Historical swords were not crafted to the demands of modern experts whether they have a Youtube channel or not but rather for medieval combatants who may well rely on these pieces for their lives. In most cases they were not attacked by a a tree or other inanimate object. In fact if they were they would have chosen an axe.
Tools/Weapons need to be judged on how they accomplish the tasks for which they are designed. Do not use a rifle to slice a fish or a knife to block a bullet both will almost certainly be unsuccessful.
Our goal, from when we first started making swords in the 80's, is to craft swords and other weapons that excel at replicating the historical originals and be fully functional as they were intended. When asked are our swords real, we say we always try to craft elegant, historically accurate, authentically functional pieces of great quality.
A good thing for new sword buyers to check out are good quality video of historical fencing techniques like this. it allows one a better idea of how a sword was used in period.
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