Should I get rings on my feder?
When people are ordering a feder we are often asked if we think they should get rings on the hilt. Our answer is 'it depends'. Rings are one example of the complex guards that developed on some longswords of the 16th century, and they were probably intended for unarmored combat (why protect the hands with rings if you anticipate using gauntlets?), but most period treatises depict training longswords with a simple cross.
Most longswords had simple crosses that protected the hands, at least to some extent. As any beginning swordfighter can tell you, getting hit on the hands can suck, even with a plastic sword and while wearing protective gloves. The hands are the forward target, making them very likely to be hit, especially when you are just learning a new fighting system and haven't internalized how time, measure, body structure, and geometry protect you from being hit while striking. Even though the schilt on historical feders was probably a technology for protecting the unarmored hand in the bind, we still see strikes to the hands, for example in the below pic from Meyer's 1570 fight book.
Most people who end up getting rings on their training sword hilt fall into one of two categories: those who are getting their first steel trainer and want to be extra careful, and those who have training for a considerable period of time and want a sword that helps them to be safe while wearing minimal protective gear. Both of these are legitimate, though the two desires lead to somewhat different design considerations.
A custom ring-hilted longsword from Arms and Armor
For those who want extra protection while wearing modern HEMA gear the challenge is to add rings or other additional hilt protection, sometimes including a knuckle bow or pierced plates, in a way that doesn't impede mobility too much. Modern HEMA gauntlets are, for the most part, significantly more bulky
than historical steel gauntlets.
Pic of Hema glove next to 15th C. antique gauntlet
This has been one of the driving motivations for having longer and longer grips on feders that people use in tournaments, and it necessitates crafting rings of sufficient size that the gloved thumb can be placed through the ring alongside the blade for complex binding actions and some meisterhaus.
These large rings can cause additional issues, apart from occasional historical inaccuracy. First, large rings weigh more than smaller rings and can alter the handling dynamics of the sword. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the rings are very close to the point of balance, but they do tend to change the way the sword wants to rotate around the hilt in the bind. All things being equal, large rings will reduce the blade presence of the sword by increasing the mass at the hilt. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and there were certainly plenty of historical swords that behave like this. For example, many complex hilted longswords
of the 16th century feel quite blade light, despite being overall heavier than their simple-hilted contemporaries. These issues can be mitigated somewhat by including only a single ring that projects over the back of the hand. This modification is historical and cuts the mass in half when compared to symmetrical rings, but it also alters the feel of the sword somewhat by concentrating weight on a single side, which can accentuate a tendency for blade misalignment in the cut if the user is not conditioned to it.
For those who prefer to fence without substantial modern protective gear a complex hilted trainer can be an ideal solution that balances historical accuracy with some additional safety. Although 16th century fencers seem to have mostly trained with simple-hilted swords, as those seen in Meyer above, or on existing originals as here
, when fighting unarmored with sharp weapons some fighters clearly preferred the additional style and protection of a complex hilt. We usually make swords for folks with this preference to historical parameters, which means that large HEMA gauntlets will not fit well inside the guard. The below pic is of a German or Swiss longsword of around 1530 now in the Wallace Collection. The complex guard is perfectly fitted for an unarmored hand, but is too small to cram a modern HEMA glove into. If someone wants a guard like this sized up to fit modern gloves it substantially changes the sword dynamics because the knuckle bow projects farther out to the side, shifting the balance of the whole sword toward the true edge.
German or Swiss 1530 Wallace catalogue number A 482
The potential problem of a weight differential between the true and false edges of a sword is mitigated in single edged examples such as sabers where the added mass of a knuckle bow actually aids in edge alignment.
In conclusion, if you want rings on your feder consider how you want to use the sword. If you are afraid of getting hit in the hands during tournament fighting then rings can offer some additional protection, but if you are a relative beginner it might be protection that you won't need for long as you improve your ability to protect your hands with the cross and schilt, which were designed to do so in period. In our opinion, there is nothing wrong with wanting a little extra protection if you are going to be forcefully fencing with people who might hit you very hard, or if you have a job that would be imperiled due to a hand injury. There will, however, be some trade-offs in performance and cost. If, on the other hand, you train for true blossfechten (unarmored combat), then a complex hilt is a period solution to not having your hands cut off. Remember, it's really hard to win a sword fight if you don't have a hand to hold the sword. There are also aesthetic reasons to have a complex hilt, as they can be quite beautiful, but if they are built to historical specs they will be damaged over time with aggressive fencing, just as they were in the past.
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.