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Sword Buyers Guide Part 2

or, How to Buy a Sword That People will Envy

This is a continuation of the article Finding the Perfect Sword, Part 1. If you haven't read that one, then we suggest you read it first. Otherwise, you'll be confused and won't be surprised at the crazy plot twists we wrote in and the stunning, shocking conclusion. But if you're one of those people who reads the last page of a book before starting it, then, by all means read on.

Criteria 3: Weight:
Swords in days of yore were heavy. Knights who complained about the weight were laughed at and were not invited to parties at the popular knights' castles. A typical arming sword might have weighed more than three pounds, which may not seem like a lot until you hold it in a full combat pose while a technically challenged person tries to take a digital photo of you.

When considering the weight of a sword, it's good to think about what you're using the sword for. If the sword will be peace-tied at your side at a renaissance festival, or drawn only occasionally at a costume party or on the stage, then you may want to go for a lighter weight sword. But if you're going to be showing the weapon off, bragging about its historical accuracy, practicing some medieval martial arts in a group like ARMAS or doing some stage combat, you might opt for a heavier, tougher, more realistic weapon.

So, how do you find lighter weapons? Well, the blade material is a fairly good indication. Stainless steel blades are almost always lighter than high-carbon blades. 20-gauge high-carbon steel blades are lighter than 18-gauge high carbon steel blades (the higher the gauge number, the thinner the blade). Balsa-wood blades are lighter than everything except rice-paper blades (that's a joke. Please don't e-mail us asking where you can find balsa wood or rice paper blades).

Another good way to make swords lighter is through the use of fullers. Fullers, as you'll remember from your high-school sword-forging classes, are the grooves along the length of a blade. These fullers, in addition to giving the sword more strength (think of the groove as a spine of sorts), also reduce the weight of the sword (the less steel, the less weight). Although many people say the fullers were used as a sort of rain-spout for the blood of impaled enemies, in all honesty, we can't find a single reference proving this or explaining why this would be useful. Please let us know if you do.

Criteria 4: Battle Ready:
This is the subject we get the most questions on. "Are your swords battle ready?" As if the person is two days from hopping on a Viking ship and raiding a nearby village. Or maybe expecting a garrison of hostile English infantry at their door any minute. The truth is, there really is no set guidelines for battle ready swords. All swords can break. In fact, all anything can break. Even, as I found out once, those cheap plastic combs that are advertised as "unbreakable!" at drug stores. (::shaking fist:: Damn you CVS! Damn you to Hell!) When people ask if a sword is battle ready, what they mean is, "Can I hit this against other swords and expect that it won't break very easily?" The answer depends on several factors. But first, a disclaimer:

Strongblade LLC neither condones nor recommends non-professionals using our weapons in a dangerous manner. This may include, but is not limited to, hitting swords against one another, hitting shields held by others, hitting anything near another person, or, for that matter, hitting anything with our swords. Furthermore, we will not sell a weapon to you if we learn that said weapon will be used for any illegal purpose. .

That said, if you are a trained swordsman, and are following all possible safety procedures and using the proper safety equipment, many of our swords will stand up to light contact . The high carbon blades are extremely strong and can withstand some contact. Please be aware any sword can and will break if struck hard enough against another blade. If a sword is considered "battle ready" we will include that information in its description, although we do not take responsibility for anyone using the weapons in an unsafe manner.

Now, about battle ready swords in general: To be used in sparring, a sword should meet three criteria, and it would help if it meets an additional fourth criteria.

  1. Blade: The blade on battle ready swords should be strong and flexible. Stainless steel blades are rarely good for this kind of work. Go for high-carbon, the thicker the gauge the better usually (except for the added weight of course). The sword should also possess a full- or rat-tail tang.
  2. Cross: The cross (or quillons for you renaissance types) should be made of an extremely durable material (steel is usually best. Brass may work but it is soft metal, and will easily damage if struck by a blade. The cross should also be thick and sturdy. Swept hilts and fancy crosses usually don't work well in combat situations. Neither does any plated cross (many fancy crosses are plated with nickel or something similar. This tends to chip off or crack when struck hard).The cross should also be mounted to the hilt in such a way that the striking of the blade does not create too much vibration.
  3. Hilt: The hilt should be mounted securely to the tang of the blade and should be fixed in such a way that striking the blade will not cause too much vibration. The hilt should also be a good fit for your hand type and allow for a secure hold. Strongblade recommends attaching a cord or leather thong to the pommel or hilt and wrapping this around your wrist in case you lose your grip on the sword. Some types of wood crack or break under pressure, so make sure that your hilt is made of a strong, flexible wood (if it's made of wood at all).
  4. Weight: Although not a necessity, you might want to make sure the sword is balanced well for your style and the sword's intended purpose (if a sword is meant as a slashing, armor crusher, then it likely was weighted more toward the point. If it's a thrusting weapon, then it was probably more weighted toward the hilt). There's nothing worse than swinging a sword twice and then realizing you don't have the strength to swing it any more. If you are a male, then Strongblade's Second Law of Testosterone is called into play. (Which reads: If you find you can no longer swing a sword because it is too heavy, feign a shoulder injury and solicit sympathy from a nearby female.

In addition to these criteria, Strongblade suggests that -- if you meet our earlier criteria for staged combat (the whole "being a professional and using proper safety guidelines" stuff), -- you should avoid parrying with the edge of the blade. Yes, we realize that it's more dramatic to parry with the blade and that it makes a more satisfying 'ting' sound, but hitting the edge of a very hard object against the edge of another very hard object inevitably leads to the chipping or notching of one or both of the objects. This holds true for just about any sword (except for some poor quality swords which may actually shatter, possibly causing serious injury).

To be perfectly honest, there was really very little parrying done with medieval swords. Knights preferred to either block with their shield or simply get out of the way of a sword than to risk damaging their blade by parrying. Again, we understand that stage combat is different than actual combat, and that spectators want to see parrying. But be warned: Edge parrying damages swords.

Pommels:
There is an absurd number of pommel types in the world. The late Ewart Oakeshott, renowned sword historian, had an extensive classification system for swords. While he listed only about 20 different styles of blades and a dozen styles of crosses in his system, he listed nearly 40 different possible pommel styles that he had seen on historical medieval swords. Obviously pommels were one of the parts of the sword most open to interpretation and creativity. Aside from the aesthetic quality of them, there are only a few things to consider when looking at the pommel of a sword.

  1. Make sure it'll be comfortable for your hand. Some pommel types, particularly some of the Viking sword types, interfere with the sword hand. For example, there is a style of lobed Viking sword pommels that features a flat bottom (the area closest to the hand). The flat bottom makes an edge that the hand occasionally hits when flexing, making it difficult to make a full wrist extension. This pommel type is rare, and most Viking swords have rounded and well designed pommels, but again, this is just an example of what to look for.
  2. Pommels should really be the correct size and weight for the sword. In fact, that's the whole reason for the pommel really, to help balance out the weight of the sword and to make the sword more comfortable to hold and swing. The balance of the sword really depends on what it's used for. If it's a larger battle sword, the weigh will most likely be closer to the point, to give extra crunching power to the slash. If it's a thrusting weapon, the center of balance will be closer to the hilt. Keep this in mind when you look at the size, weight and material of the pommel.
  3. You should be able to remove the pommel of the sword to inspect the tang of the blade. If you cannot remove the pommel, then it most likely is a half-tang sword, and should not be used for anything other than costume parties or hanging on a wall. Check to make sure the threaded connection between pommel and tang is secure and that there is enough tang for the pommel to latch onto securely. If the pommel is only hanging on by a few threads of the tang, it could come off or become stripped.
  4. Lastly, make sure the pommel is the right material for your sword. Normally you want the pommel and the cross to be made of the same material. If you are planning on the swinging the sword a bit, or sparring (assuming you're a professional), then make sure the pommel is of a durable material that can take a hit (not a normal occurrence, but it can happen). Also, make sure the material is strong enough to handle the pressure of your hand or wrist in extreme maneuvers without snapping.
  5. Please, make sure your pommel doesn't have a cheesy skull and crossbones on it. There may be a well done skull and crossbones pommel somewhere, but we've not seen it. In fact, stay away from anything that may be construed as tacky on the pommel. Not a necessity, really, but think of it as a fashion tip from Uncle Strongblade.

Sheath
A good sheath is built around the sword that it is made for. Swords should fit into their sheathe with no excessive rattling or side to side movement. It is better for a sword to stick a little coming out of the sheath than to have it move slightly (or heck, a lot) in the sheathe. Any movement of the sword in the sheath will take a toll on the blade after a while: the metal will may show scratches or other signs of wear after a while.

Other than this piece of advice, there isn't a lot more to say about sheaths. If you buy a sheath for a very large sword, make sure it has a swing-out attachment that allows the sword to be drawn sideways out of the sheath and not upwards like a normal sword. It's best not to store swords in their sheaths as the wood or leather will start corroding the metal on the blade (this is particularly important for high carbon blades.

Aesthetic qualities tend to come into play quite a bit with the sheath, so look for good craftsmanship. Pay attention to the details, that's where the mistakes are normally made. Look closely at where the metal accents attach to the leather (or wood, or whatever material) of the sheath. Are there visible globs of glue peeking out from underneath? Are the accents on straight? Is the material of the accents of good quality? Is the sheath real leather? These are the types of questions you should ask yourself when looking at sheaths. Its difficult to tell these kinds of details from many online sites, but if you find the sheath (or any part of the sword) doesn't meet your standards, don't be afraid to return it. We have enough crappy craftsmanship to deal with in our life. Why settle for it in our swords?

I could go on and on really. For each of these criteria, there are dozens of additions I could make, but time and space, those eternal foes, are closing in. If you have any questions about swords, buying swords or not being made fun of, please contact me or any of us at strongblade.com. We'd love to help. If you find any inaccuracies in the text above, please, by all means, keep them to yourself. Jokes, of course. If you find inaccuracies, please e-mail me at webmaster@strongblade.com so that we may have a healthy debate about them. If wrong, I will correct any mistakes. And eat a live worm.

Back to Part one of this article.