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Something About the Sword...

with John Clements

I'm fascinated by the sword. The sword represents so many things in our civilization, despite it being a weapon obsolete for self-defense and war. The legacy and lore of the sword —as an iconic artifact, as a symbolic emblem, as an object of mystery and legend, and as the chosen weapon of the just hero or the knightly warrior as well as the honorable duelist —is something that continues to resonate with us. Popular culture and literary fiction, from the oldest myths and legends through chivalric romances and swashbuckling Victorian tales, all the way up to modern pop-culture cinema and especially video games and boardgames, have always featured the sword. The culture surrounding it is what I like to call its "echo of steel" and it continues to "ring."

Whether you pursue its study as self-defense method, exploration of heritage, recreational pastime, sporting game, antiquarian curiosity, artistic handicraft, fantasy play, or academic pursuit, there is something special about the sword and about swordsmanship. There is no other hand-weapon that compares to it. No other similar close-combat weapon requires its own specialist maker (a swordsmith) and produces a specialist warrior (the swordsman). It is a weapon which needs, perhaps demands, an expert to make it and an expert to wield it. No other archaic fighting implement, save for the bow, requires an Art all its own and certainly no other has existed in such diversity and variety for so long around the world. Arguably, no other such historical hand weapon had its own dedicated "science of defence," for military as well as civilian use. The sword was not something that was also for hunting or farming but specifically for personal protection.


But a basic truth about swords is that we are discussing objects that were functional tools for violence yet, which today, virtually no one has any real-world experience in using for their original intended function. They were, after all, artifacts inescapably designed and created for doing violence and hurt on someone or preventing them from doing it on you. Still, it's not hard to understand that for some time there has not been much actual sword-fighting going on in the world. Because of this, it’s very easy now to make up nonsense about them or come to believe
things about their properties that simply aren’t true. So, in either terms of producing them or practicing with them, there has accumulated a wealth of erroneous assumptions and misconceptions.

It’s a simple matter, really: Once people stop using real swords in real combat then real swordsmiths have very little reason to make real weapons for real swordsmen anymore. Over generations the ancient critical cycle of "feedback" between expert users and expert makers is broken. There's little combat necessity compelling  weapons to then be made properly nor be handled effectively. Thus, over time, understanding of both fades and each art is forgotten.

When you stop to consider it very few people today have any practical experience in hitting things with sharp metal blades, let alone warding off the blows from other sharp metal things. Few sword makers are ever called upon to produce weapons that can hold up to the trauma of being used in this way and even fewer swordsman ever have to demonstrate doing so. But this doesn’t stop nearly everyone from opining on swords and  swordsmanship. It’s kind of funny but it’s also sad. Still, it’s wonderful that the quality and diversity of historical reproduction swords now available to collectors and students has dramatically improved in the past ten years. The sword market is one of very few areas where things have become more affordable even as they're becoming better made. Even then, modern sword makers themselves are still learning and experimenting just as are  modern swordsmen.

Regardless of the why you're interested in them, as fellow "students of the sword", to one degree or another, we all get to view them as both historians and fencers. The more historical sword types you come to handle and examine, to try out in play or practice, the more you come to admire about them. Enjoy the experience of discovering the performance and handling quality of different blade forms and hilt-configurations —i.e., their attributes and features, their capabilities and their limitations, their durability and resilience, and how they  endured wear withstood shocks. The legacy and lore of the sword itself is built upon this very appreciation. Take the time to explore it. The bottom line is that swords are very cool.