I’ve long been fascinated with swords. I was fortunate enough to start cutting with replica swords in my teens back in the 1980s. It was that, combined with play fighting using all manner of sword simulators, which set me on a lifelong course of study. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that I came to understand what factors went into making a sword “real” or rather, what made one an accurate reproduction of a historical model. Fast forward to today and I regularly work with students of all experience levels teaching and training in authentic historical fencing methods. I’m fortunate to have a fine collection of almost every type of sword from across cultures and centuries. I’ve also been fortunate to have handled more than 200 actual antique specimens over the years. With this experience, one of my primary goals has come to be getting across to both novice practitioners as well as veteran collectors just what the true attributes are of a good sword.
The handling and performance characteristics of different swords obviously vary. Many times I’ve expressed in writing, lectures and demonstrations the importance of understanding that sword design is contextual and situational. It’s not just a matter of technology and craftsmanship, as well as the self-evident martial utility of the weapon. Whether in battle, duel or street-level self-defense there is also a personal subjective aspect. Many times my students, having begun their study with the double-handed European war-sword, come in time to find another type of sword they thought they were going to like just didn’t fit their build and temperament. Correspondingly, as they learned about other types of swords many began to have a new found respect and appreciation for ones that they didn’t originally find all that appealing. The simple truth is, the more you are exposed to the reality of historical close-combat with bladed weaponry, the more you come to refine what it is that fascinates you about it. As functional tools rather than artifacts they become far more reflective of actual personal experience.
Because swords just don’t chop and cleave, slash and slice, or hack and slash, or for that matter, merely cut and thrust, or perhaps thrust alone, they must be considered holistically. In simplest terms: different configurations of blade matched to compositions of hilt enable various swords to strike and ward in different ways. In this regard, we have to consider whether a sword was intended primarily for military or civilian use. We have to consider whether it was intended more for foot or mounted combat or was suited to both. We have to determine whether it was designed to face heavy armor or lighter armor or not at all. We have to consider the context for why it was created as a one handed or two-handed weapon. Not often attempts were made to combine the best attributes into new styles but there is always a compromise to utility when trying this. Even among certain iconic designs, there are subtle nuances to how they differ as conditions for their manner of intended use changed over generations. Finding out how each form of sword plays in guarding, covering, and impacting with edge or penetrating with point is precisely what makes up a large part of the art of fencing.
An effective fighting blade was not just one that had a sharp edge and was capable of making powerful blows without bending or breaking. A good sword had to be maneuverable to transition between offense and defense —and for latter, to be able to ward off strikes and withstand blows without failing. Any sound test of a sword then, must evaluate for these intrinsic handling qualities. Any testing of a sword must measure how, when used with proper speed and force, it performs against the type of target materials it was designed to face. As a weapon a good sword had to be agile and quick as well as sturdy and resilient. They were certainly never designed to be used on stationary targets while standing still. If this were not so, then they would’ve tried to have made the biggest heaviest blade for the strongest men to just slowly whack with. And of course, we know they didn’t.
Thus, when we look at the range of ethnographic sword forms around the globe throughout history, and come to appreciate their deadly aesthetic, their cultural lore, as well as their earnest role, we also come to find which ones suit us personally. We learn which ones we prefer to study, that we enjoy to train and play with, that we most like to own, and for some of us, that we find satisfaction in learning to skillfully wield.
There are so many things to learn and admire about swords of the world. You will come to learn the advantages and disadvantages of a great variety of different sizes and shapes, dimensions and geometries. You will discover how different hilts require different gripping methods to facilitate and optimize specific actions. And you can come to comprehend how to employ the particular fighting techniques favorable to each kind of. All these are things discovered by exploring these heroic tools. It is through studying different swords, practicing with them, collecting them, that we come to appreciate each for its form and function and how it speaks to us as an individual just as it surely did to swordsmen of the past.
- John Clements