Zen and the Stage Combat Sword

Stage fighting. The timeless art of not dying.

(This is part 2 of a two-part article on the difference between battle-ready and stage-combat swords. You can find the previous article here.)

If anyone can fill Yoda's shoes, it's this guy. Sort of.

Beaker will be playing the role of Yoda.

So, in my last post, I talked about battle-ready swords. And Yoda.  And I promised to reveal the secret of the crop circles in England. So, in this second part of the post, I want to address stage combat swords. And Beaker, sidekick to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, of Muppets fame.  And, as promised, I will reveal the secret of the crop circles.

But first, let’s talk about stage combat.

 

When you battle on stage, you are trying to accomplish three things:

  1. To present a skillful display of martial prowess that will impress and entertain the audience.
  2. To move the story forward in an energetic fashion
  3. To not die.
Stage fighting. The timeless art of not dying.

Stage combat. The timeless art of not dying.

The skillful display of martial prowess requires training, practice and choreography. Moving the story forward requires a good script and a director that understands the need for good pacing and realizes that a fight scene must not just introduce action, but also says something about the characters. And to not die requires good stage combat sword. And actors who like each other.

But what is a good theatrical combat sword?

Well, let’s start by saying what it’s not. A stage combat sword is very different from a battle-ready sword. You see, each sword has a completely different purpose. A battle-ready sword, historically, was meant for one thing: Killing people. A purpose directly opposed to directive 3 of stage combat. We talked last time about how tempering a sword allows it to hold a good edge, although making the blade more brittle. In stage combat, we don’t want a brittle blade. We want a blade that won’t send shards of metal into an audience (unless you’re trying to pioneer 3D live theater, in which case you might want that, although I would consult an attorney before moving forward). In stage combat, we want a sturdy blade, one that will endure hundreds of performances, thousands of sword on sword strikes. And one that will do the least amount of damage should an accident occur. So, how do we achieve this?

Latex and rubber. Not just a fetish anymore.

Latex and rubber. Not just a fetish anymore.

Well, you could always use a high-end LARP sword. A lot of movie studios are using the more detailed rubber swords and foam swords that LARPers are using. These weapons are safe and look good on camera. And Beaker approves of LARP weapons. I just watched Hercules last weekend and I think I noticed a LARP sword that Strongblade sells being held by Dwayne Johnson. Nintey-nine percent of audiences won’t notice, especially for quick shots on camera. But on the stage, well, that’s a different story.

On stage, the audience will have a long time to look at the weapons, and they will expect to hear the sounds of steel on steel when swords meet. So, for the stage, you need a strong, high-carbon steel weapon. But there is one thing not everyone agrees on. And, that is, as Hamlet so eloquently stated, “To temper, or not to temper?” (Most people aren’t aware that Shakespeare wrote the original version of Hamlet with that line in it.) (Editor’s note: That’s becauseShakespeare didn’t write that. Stop making stuff up).

Some stage combat performers like tempered swords, because they have a harder surface and won’t suffer so many nicks and scratches. Tempered swords also flex back to their original shape when you flex them. But, as mentioned earlier, if you flex a tempered sword too much, it may break, turning your performance into the aforementioned 3D live theater. A non-tempered sword might bend during a performance, though, which isn’t going to help your audience suspend disbelief (and may symbolize bad things about your main character if he is male).

The best way to make a decision on tempering is to assess the type of sword you will be using. Many re-enactors and performers use a non-tempered, high-carbon blade that is really thick. A thicker blade is less likely to bend (which is what I tell my fiancée whenever I can).

Crash cars don't have hood ornaments. Learn from this.

Crash cars don’t have hood ornaments. Learn from this.

Regardless of whether you temper a weapon or not, there are a few things that are not optional. Your stage combat weapon should have a full tang, just like a battle ready weapon. It should also have squared or rounded thick edges, a rounded (not pointed) tip, and should *never* be sharpened (see directive 3 of stage combat).

Beaker, of Muppet fame, once said something important about stage combat weapons. He said, “Meep meep meep. Meep meep meep, meep meep–meep meep meep, meep meep Meep meep meep; meep meep..”

And I think that says just about everything you need to know about stage combat weapons. Although he left out the part about guards. You see, on a real, battle-ready sword, the guard is used only for incidental contact. On stage, there are many more sword-on-sword strikes, which means more chance of the guards being struck. Because of this, the guards on a stage combat sword should be made of very strong steel, with no decorations or plating.

These have absolutely nothing to do with stage combat.

These have absolutely nothing to do with stage combat.

What about balance? We talked about how important balance is for a battle-ready sword. Is it important in a stage combat weapon? The answer is long and rather technical:

No.

Some people cling to the belief that they need a perfectly balanced weapon for stage combat, but those are the same people who think that cars should get a new paint job before taking part in a demolition derby. Safety and durability are the two most important factors in a stage combat weapon. Everything else is just lipstick and eyeliner.

 

Do any of you agree or disagree with what I’ve written? Do you have any stories about stage combat? Let us know in the comments! Who knows, you might win some swag.

 

Oh, and now, for the unveiling. I will reveal how the crop circles were made in England. The answer was discovered by Beaker, of Muppet fame. And I will let him tell you in his own words”

“Meep meep meep, meep meeep meep. Meep meep, meep meep meep, meep meep: Meep Meep. Meep. Meep meep.”

That Beaker. He’s wasted working for Honeydew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zen and the Battle Ready Sword

Sword fighting is like cool Chinese stuff.

There’s a popular saying in the sword industry: “Don’t put your tongue on the polishing wheel.”

Um. And there’s another popular saying in the sword industry that might just be a little more relevant than that one: “A sword is not an axe.”

A sword is not an axe. Unless it's this sword.

A sword is not an axe. Unless it’s this sword.

Okay, maybe that’s not really saying, but it should be. Because swords really aren’t axes. If you want to cut down saplings or thorns bushes, then you probably don’t want to buy a battle-ready sword. You want an axe. And as I hope I’ve established here, a sword is not an axe. Unless you name your sword “Axe,” in which case you have found a loophole. But you still shouldn’t use it to cut down brush.

I hear the questions all the way from my computer desk as I write this, which is odd because I’m writing this in your past, and you probably live really far away from me. Your question: “But why *can’t* I use a sword to cut down saplings? It’s battle-ready, right? That means it’s really, really tough.” And I give you my best Yoda nod, and say, “Much to learn, you have, young Jedi. Much to learn.”

Let’s start with definitions.

Strongblade sells battle ready swords. But what does that really mean? And what’s the difference between a battle-ready sword and a stage combat sword? In this two-part article, I will answer both those questions. And I will also tell you how the crop circles in England came to be there. But, in this first part, I will focus on battle-ready swords.

There really is no industry-standard definition of “battle-ready.” It’s one of those terms that people throw around, like, “special forces,” or “best-seller,” or “licensed practitioner of medicine.” What a joke. I mean, I perform surgeries all the time and I have no medical degree whatsoever. You see what I mean? The terms sort of mean something, but there is no exact specifications for it. There are some pretty solidly established minimums for battle-ready swords, and that’s probably the best place to start.

YodaKnight

Yoda hopes he doesn’t have to repeat his lesson.

Construction
I think everyone agrees that a sword should be made from carbon steel. Especially this guy. And not just a little carbon. A good sword should be made from high-carbon steel. Stainless steel swords look nice, and they’re usually pretty inexpensive, but as that guy in the link found out, they shatter easily. Carbon steel won’t shatter. This is why Conan’s dad didn’t talk about “The Riddle of Stainless Steel.” It was just the “Riddle of Steel.” Learned your lesson now, you have? asks Yoda. Yeah, Yoda. Just because.

Tempering
We’ve talked about tempering before, so I won’t go into too much detail, but tempering is a heat-treating process that makes a sword flexible on the inside and brittle on the outside. Which is the complete opposite of me. I am flexible on the outside, but inside I am shattering and crying and calling for my mother and wishing Saturday morning cartoons came back.

Sword fighting is like cool Chinese stuff.

Sword fighting is like cool Chinese stuff.

Why would you want a sword to be brittle anywhere? Well, perhaps brittle is the wrong word. You want the sword to be more rigid on the outside–harder and less flexible. Why is this? Because you want that sword to hold a nice edge. And to hold a nice edge, you need a really hard metal. The problem with hard metal is that it breaks more easily. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? Well, there’s a cool concept from the Chinese philosophy, Taoism, that explains this. The Taoists know that an oak tree is stronger and more rigid than a blade of grass. But when a powerful storm hits, it is this rigidity that makes the tree snap in the wind. A blade of grass is flexible enough to wave and flow with the storm, and it does not break. Or, as Yoda likes to say, “Upon a polishing wheel your tongue should never rest.” Yoda knows nothing of Taosim.

Because of this rigid edge, a tempered sword will actually break before a non-tempered sword. Without heat treatment, a high-carbon sword will bend easily, but won’t break (see oak tree/grass blade analogy above). But without the heat treatment, you can’t get a nice sharp edge on the sword. And, as you know, people don’t kill people. Sharpened swords kill people. But you shouldn’t let your sword kill people. It’s not cool. And totally against all Taoist principles. And Yoda doesn’t like it either.

Tang. Not even remotely what we're talking about.

Tang. Not even remotely what we’re talking about.

Tang
To be a strong, battle-ready sword, the high-carbon steel should be quenched in a barrel of Tang®. Apparently this powdered orange drink used by astronauts has a certain chemical in it that gives the steel . . . um . . . okay. I’m reading my notes now. What I said is incorrect. *Waves hand in Jedi fashion* These are not the tangs you’re looking for.

The tang is actually the narrow part of the sword that you attach the grip to. There are a lot of different types of tangs, but the strongest style is the full tang. This means that the blade and the tang are made from one piece of steel. Some sword blades have the tangs welded onto them. Which is like using blades of grass as the foundation to your house. (Yeah, I’m reeeeeeeally stretching that grass metaphor). Welded tangs have a tendency to snap off, and all you can do is keep pretending you still have a sword blade, and complimenting your opponent on his skillful ability to avoid being hit.

 

Melina in split sword dagger

Yeah. balance matters.

Balance
Balance is really a subjective thing. Some people like a more forward weight, so their strikes have more power. Some prefer a more rear balance, so the blade isn’t so top-heavy. And others swear that the center of balance should be a few inches north of the guard (north being toward the tip). A sword may not be balanced to your liking, but it could still be a fine battle-ready weapon.

A battle-ready weapon, although it is finely crafted using the best materials and forging techniques, should not be smashed against things, or used to chop down saplings. You would no more use a battle-ready sword to cut brush than you would use an F1 car on your road trip to Florida. Fine swords are meant to be used in battle by skilled swordsmen, who know the strengths and limitations of their weapons. I cringe every time I see a movie with sword fighting in it. Usually because the script sucks. But the other common reason for my cringing is the fact that the combatants are using their swords to block their opponent’s blade. Sword fighter in the Middle Ages rarely used their swords like this. Their weapons were too big an investment to use as a shield. Interestingly, they actually *had* shields. And why did they have shields? So they wouldn’t have to stop a hurtling piece of 3lb metal with one of their most expensive pieces of equipment—their swords. When two swords meet, bad things usually happen. Even though Hollywood would have us believe otherwise.

And there lies the fundamental difference between battle-ready swords and stage-combat swords. The latter are meant to take sword on sword abuse, and are typically used by actors rather than trained swords fighters. So check back soon to see the second part of this article, about stage-combat weapons. And crops circles.

Come back, you must.