Grip size: does it matter?
Circumference of the grip is an important detail that some overlook, but it is directly related to how you interact with the sword. Today’s trainers in general are well-sized, though you should check this prior to purchase. You want to make sure it is not too large as this creates an insecure hold of the sword. The unexperienced sword fighter can have a tendency to choose a grip size that is too large in circumference and it affects the ability to manipulate the sword in a historical fashion.
If you examine historical swords the grip circumference often allows the fingers to nest in the palm. This allows the majority of the fore grip to be encircled by the hand when striking. If the grip is larger in circumference the sword can lever itself against the weakest part of your hand position, the gap between fingertips and palm. If the grip is slimmer in cross section it allows the hands to position correctly when in the fight and advantageously reduces the chance the sword will escape your grip when hit or bound.
Cross sections of the Schloss Erbach Sword. The Oakeshott Collection.
It is also important that the upper section of the grip, the part closer to the pommel, should be rather thin in circumference so the sword can turn freely in the back hand for false edge actions. There are some originals where the upper grip is formed by just the tang of the sword formed as part of the grip. This allows the hand to ride around it very lightly. This may well be the meaning of "do not hinder the pommel" in MS 3227a, sometimes called the Dobringer fight book.
Reproduction of exposed tang sword. See an original in the collection at The Met here.
Historical grip covers were done in a variety of materials including leather and cloth. While the manuals depict fairly plain pieces there are some high status pieces with more elaborate grips and decoration. So, any of the grip treatments seen in period silk, pompoms, netting, risers, studs, wire and worked leather could all be appropriate for the well heeled personal practice sword of the day. We do not see cloth very often today, though we did do some heavy canvas covers several years ago as a custom job.
High status grip of sword in The Metropolitan Museum of NY.
Today most practice swords use thin leather from cows, goats or pigs, or a glued down string or cord wrapped around the grip from one end to the other in a single length. All of these can work well and give an authentic feel and purchase for the hands on the sword.
When you are considering the grip covering you would prefer on a new sword you should consider how important durability and historical accuracy are to you. In the late medieval and Renaissance periods, when training swords were in widespread use, most fencers had local access to cutlers and smiths who could repair or replace parts of their swords wherever needed. Today you may need to mail your worn sword across the country, or even across the world for relatively minor repairs.
Leather grips, while very historically accurate, are somewhat more prone to damage if struck with a blade (this is only one of the reasons you should strive to never parry with your hands). That said, we love leather grips for their beauty, feel, and overall elegance. String-wrapped grips are less historical but somewhat more durable. They still give a fairly unobtrusive hand-feel but are, in our opinion, less elegant looking. Finally, wire-wrapping of the upper half of the grip (the section closest the pommel) provides a striking and durable solution in the area most often damaged by injudicious parries during sparring. The down side is that wire-wrapping increases the cost of the sword, and tends to wear gloves more rapidly than other coverings.
The cross guard
Cross guards in the manuals are almost all depicted as simple straight guards. The majority of today's training swords follow suite. The use of slightly down turned guards and S shaped guards do occur historically but are less common. The guard should be a quality steel and strong enough to withstand the kind of training and sparring you practice. If you frequently train with a partner who tries to "manfully" hew you into concussed oblivion you should not expect a slim or delicate guard to remain unscathed in the process. Cross guards are there to protect you. Many sharp swords have fine and elegant guards that were never designed for day in and day out abuse. Rather, if you got into a duel, survived, and noticed that your cross was heavily damaged while saving your life it was a rather acceptable trade off. The rigors of training today mean that durability should be a significant consideration when choosing a guard for your Feder or other trainer.
Historically, guards and pommels were usually made of iron. Steel is iron with 1% or less carbon as an alloy. The addition of carbon to iron changes the material characteristics significantly. Your blade gets its flexibility and edge holding from the hardening of steel through heat treat due to this carbon. While this is a good attribute in a blade it is not good in a guard. Period guards are usually iron and dead soft, even when steel was used they would use very low carbon steel and it would not be hardenable.
Today iron is not as readily available as in the past. At Arms and Armor we chose a quality tool steel for our guards for several reasons. First, it's ductile nature is similar to the iron used in period and making historically accurate blades in what we are all about. Second, making guards out of a material that is softer than the blades reduces wear on the blades. The last thing you want is to induce stress fractures when striking a training partners' hardened guard. If a blade where to break, an uncommon occurrence, it is a dangerous situation that can lead to serious injury or death. Third, guards made of this material are far more durable than a piece that is hardened.
Adding rings to the guard is a way to enhance hand safety. While there are examples in the historic manuals of trainers with rings, use today is primarily an issue of personal preference. When people ask if these are a good idea our usual response is that, if you asked a Master of the day their response was likely "if you are correct in your system you do not need them", but as in most things in life a bit of extra protection is ok. Depending on the size and position of the rings, and your preferred type of glove, rings can sometimes impede mobility while moving through guards and positions. If you want rings on your hilt we will work with you to ensure you get the added safety (and style) with minimal trade off in maneuverability.