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Sword Buyers Guide Part 1

or, How to Buy a Sword That People Won't Make Fun Of

It looks great.
It's shiny and pointy in the right places and even comes with a sheath. In fact, it looks remarkably similar to the sword you were looking at on the previous web site, but those guys wanted twice as much for it, and they didn't include a sheath! Ha! You think to yourself:

I found myself a deal. I Rule.

Then the UPS guy comes in his adult ice cream truck and you get the first clue that you may not rule as much as you thought you did. The box is a bit ... well ... smaller than you had expected. So, you open it up in a flash of tape and a particularly sharp key and there before you is not the massive Scottish claymore that you had anticipated, but a 14" miniature replica. You slap your forehead and whisper to yourself:

I suck

Okay, so ordering the wrong size sword may be one of the easier mistakes to avoid, but it's just an example of one of the many things that can go wrong. There's a lot more to buying a sword than how the thing looks on the web site. In fact, with all the different vendors, manufacturers, materials, styles and prices, it can be downright baffling to find the sword you want. What's a swordsman to do?

Fear not, fair purveyor of arms, for Strongblade is here to educate you. Here below this introduction are five different criteria (additionally subdivided into subcriterias) to consider when making that sword purchase.

The excitement of buying a sword can swiftly turn to frustration, confusion and disappointment. Why not avoid all that? Read on and buy well!

Criteria 1: Style
This is typically the easiest criteria to determine: there are very few curves thrown at you on this one. You want a rapier? Get a rapier. You want a Spanish falcatta? Get a Spanish falcatta. Just make sure you know what your getting. Read up a little on the style you're interested in to see what the normal size, weight and shape of these weapons are. Of course, this only applies to historically accurate swords. Fantasy swords are another matter altogether. There really is no set style to fantasy swords, although just about all of them borrow quite heavily from historical swords.

Criteria 2: Blade
Now, as in the past, the material that forms the blade is probably the most important aspect of a sword. In the past knights, soldiers and other swordsmen had to worry about whether the blade was pattern welded, whether it had been cooled in oil or water, how pure the steel was, how flexible it was, how heavy it was, whether the blacksmith had been on an all-night bender again the night before ... the list went on. Although buying a sword today is probably a bit easier, you still need to pay close attention to the blade. Get the wrong material and you might as well just use your sword to pick up trash around the yard.

Blade Material
This is a biggee.
Material is what really separates the sword from the pointy stick, so it's worth a close examination.

If the blade of the sword you are looking to buy is listed as simply "steel" be very careful. There are dozens of different steel types and you want to make sure the one you're getting is one that will be rigid enough to retain its shape, yet flexible enough to bend rather than break. Too rigid and the blade chips or shatters easily. Too flexible and it tends to bend out of shape easily and won't hold a good edge. Blacksmiths have dealt with this delicate balance for thousands of years. Ancient Damascus smiths (and indeed, great smiths all through history) would layer different types of steel, with softer, more flexible steel on the inside of the blade and harder, more rigid steel on the outside. This allowed the blade to bend, but still allowed it to take a very nice edge.

Now, in modern times, some sword makers use mixtures of steel and silicone to keep a blade both flexible and durable. Hmm... steel and silicone? Sounds like a Pamela Anderson sword movie in the making. Anyway, Strongblade tends to sell mostly high-carbon steel blades, which are arguably the most effective and certainly the most historically accurate blades available. More on that later, but the point of all of this is that you need to make sure that the steel you are buying is clearly labeled. .

Stainless Steel:
Stainless steel blades are fun. They're shinier than the average blade and usually a lot lighter. You can use them to reflect sunlight into your friends' eyes when you're bored, and the ladies can make sure their mascara hasn't run by glancing into the blade (guys can too, if you're into that). There are basically three small problems with stainless steel blades.

  1. Except for very high quality stainless steel, these blades can't hold an edge as well as high-carbon blades.
  2. They can be a bit brittle, and tend to chip easily.
  3. They're not really very historically accurate.

Stainless steel is made by adding an element called chromium (and a couple of other elements) to normal steel This gives it the characteristic shine and sweet reflective qualities, but also makes the blade more brittle. There are many different types of stainless steel (too many to go into in any detail in this article), but most sword makers use 440 stainless steel to make their stainless blades. Most 440 stainless is easy and quick for manufacturers to make, but rather fragile and unable to hold a good edge. If your sword is going to be a wallhanger, they figure you don't need to worry about how strong the steel is. 440C stainless steel is the exception, being a high-carbon stainless steel (about 1.2% if you're interested). 440C is generally regarded as the best stainless steel for a sword, although another stainless steel, ATS-34, is probably as good or better. There are other stainless steels that may be even better (and extremely expensive), but the main point here is that you should make sure the stainless steel you buy is a high-carbon stainless steel. You should also remember that if you are looking to sharpen your blade, stainless steel is not as good as standard high carbon steel. But then again, you don't have to oil stainless steel, and that's worth something.

To summarize in one long, run-on sentence, stainless steel blades are fun, fashionable,low maintenance swords that are great for renaissance festivals, cosplay events, and wallhangers; but don't bring stainless steel to a high-carbon party or you'll be made fun of.

High Carbon Steel:
Ah, the pinnacle of sword blades. High carbon steel is a strong, flexible and historically accurate material. It can hold a fantastic edge and has the feel of a true sword. If you're looking for historical accuracy or "just the right look," (and the right price to boot) then a high-carbon blade is probably for you. The problem with high-carbon blades is that they tend to rust if not cared for properly. They need a little more care (oiling when storing, not storing in their sheath, oiling the tang occasionally), but they are normally worth the extra care. And really, anything worth having is worth caring for. .

So what is high-carbon steel, anyway? Glad you asked. Here's the scoop: Steel, by itself, is a fairly pliant material. It bends easily and won't take a great edge on its own. Blacksmiths from long ago, without really realizing what they were doing, would introduce carbon (in the form of charcoal or coal) into the steel when forging. The carbon molecules acted like a gritty type of cement, mixing with the steel molecules and forming a strong lattice. This gave the steel it's strength and rigidity. Too much carbon and the sword became too brittle. Not enough, and it would bend too easily and fail to keep a good edge. Our high-carbon blades have enough carbon in them to keep them rigid, give them additional strength, and allow for a dandy of a sharpened edge. .

To present another summary: high-carbon blades eat stainless steel for dinner, and munch on floppy, girly steel swords for dessert. Sure, high-carbon stainless steel swords might be a little more efficient, but then again, plastic blades would be easier to take care of too. And anyway, you never saw a REAL knight or viking walking around with that sissy stainless stuff

Onward to Part two of this article.

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