Friday, October 21, 2011

How to Recognize a Terrible Sword

The weapons replica market is flooded with cheap knockoffs. And by cheap I mean you'll be paying hundreds of dollars for a piece of junk. For the collector who doesn't want to pay more than a sword is worth, or for the medieval martial arts enthusiast who wants a battle ready sword, it's important to be able to recognize a lemon.

The first thing you want to do is look at the sword and ask yourself, "Does this look authentic?" You can usually tell when if a sword is authentic based on the first look.

I think we're done here...

But sometimes looks are deceiving, and you need to delve a little deeper. The second thing you want to do is unscrew the pommel.


The quickest way of knowing that a sword is crap is whether the pommel is fixed or screwed on. Again, you don't have to go much further than this to realize you are the proud owner of a piece of junk. But for the sake of investigation, let us dig a little deeper.

The next thing you will notice is that the tang is just a thin rod, instead of a proper tang. Normally a tang is just a little thinner than the blade itself, to promote proper structural soundness.

Pictured: Not Structural Soundness

Also, bonus points if you noticed that the rod isn't even part of the blade. It's just welded on! This thing is going to snap the moment any kind of pressure is put on the blade.

So there you have it, an authentic terrible sword. Keep the steps that I've mentioned here and you too will avoid wasting your money. If you buy the sword from a pawnshop you can try to discretely unscrew the pommel. But if you're buying offline you'll have to trust more in the first step.

Fortunately I didn't have to pay for the sword I use as an example, since my cousin found it in her closet and gave it to me. And at the very least the manufacturers were kind enough to leave a third of the blade blunt. That way when the "tang" inevitably snaps I'll at least be able to wrap some sports tape around the lower section of the blade and still have some kind of weapon. It'll probably be more effective like that anyway.

At least I didn't have to pay for it, my cousin found it in her closet. And at least the manufacturers were kind enough to leave so much of the blade blunt. This means that when the blade inevitably breaks, I can wrap several layers of fabric backed tape around it and still have a weapon. It'll probably be even better than when it was in sword form.

Proper Sword Terminology - Middle Ages

Since using proper terminology is important to me, I thought I would go over a few of the proper terms used for discussing swords. Though, keep in mind that it is more important that you use terms your peers are familiar with, even if they are not the same as the ones I am describing here. However, as far as I know these are the proper terms used by researchers in the field of medieval weaponry


This one's a bit of a blanket term, as it has been used differently in different civilizations. It generally referred to any sword that was longer bladed than other contemporary swords. In medieval Europe the term was applied to the two handed swords that were also known as...

Bastard Sword

These swords were weapons that could be used with either one or two hands, though the most effective way of using them was with both hands, as the length of the blade made single handed wielding awkward. There are several different opinions as to the source of the name "Bastard Sword." Some say that it was because the sword was neither a two handed, nor a single handed weapon, but something in the middle.

Keep in mind that generally Bastard and Longswords were names to describe the same type of weapon. Both are two handed weapons that can be used in one hand, but were generally wielded with two hands.

Arming Sword

This is the blade that most people think of when they think of knightly swords. It preceded the long and bastard swords, but was still commonly used well into the development of two handed swords. It was shorter than most other European swords, and was used with an off hand weapon, a shield, or a buckler. Or, in some cases, a beer mug.

Great Sword

When referring to European weapons the Great Sword was synonymous with what was also called the Zweihänder. The Great Sword could only be used. The heaviest of the European swords, it usually clocked in at around five pounds.

Those are the basics, next I will go over the terminology used during the renaissance period.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Viking Swords and Beowulf

Swords hold a place of importance in the classic epics. One such epic, Beowulf provides a good example of the importance swords played in ancient European culture. I decided to go over the poem, and provide some information on the development of swords at the time, and their place in society.

This is a repost of a post from my other blog, but I felt like its true home is here.

Just to provide a little background, I'll briefly go over the evolution of the viking sword, starting at the Iron Age. At the beginning of the Iron Age, iron replaced bronze as the primary material used to create swords and other weapons. The story of the viking sword most likely used by Beowulf begins with the Celtic culture at the dawn of the Iron Age.

The Celtic sword, several examples of which are shown in the image above, were relatively crude weapons when compared to later steel weapons. Quenching techniques had not yet been developed so iron swords were created using the same forging techniques used to create bronze swords. During this period, however, smiths learned new techniques and slowly discovered the method by which to make steel, which resulted in swords that were harder to break, and more capable of holding an edge.

As the Celtic culture declined, other cultures picked up on their iron and steel working techniques, which led to the creation of several swords inspired by the Celtic design over the course of history. The next step in the evolution of the Viking sword was oddly enough carried on by the Romans.

The Roman Gladius is a fairly iconic sword, that is recognizable even by people with no interest in historical weaponry. It was a short steel sword, similar to the Greek swords, used in close quarters. The Gladius was not the primary weapon of the infantry, who focused instead more on tight formations and the pilum, or spear. Strong similarities can be seen between the Roman Gladius and the Celtic swords, especially in the shape of the grip, which in both cases does not feature a cross piece.

Before the Gladius developed into the Viking sword, however, there was one more evolutionary stage, that also took place among the Romans.

The Spatha was a much longer sword than the Gladius, and was developed for use by Cavalry officers, who would have need of the longer reach the Spatha provided from horseback. Their use was widespread among the conscripted Germanic troops, and found wide use among heavy infantry in later years. Eventually it replaced the Gladius among front line troops, providing them with a longer reach.

The Spatha eventually traveled north, where it was developed into the weapon used by the Norsemen, and Vikings.

Forging and Dimensions
The Viking method of forging blades was passed down from the later Iron Age, around the time that steel was developed. The technique was referred to as Pattern Welding, and was the answer to the two main problems that iron and steel swords had. Iron, while much harder than bronze, was still not quite hard enough to hold an edge. It was a fairly malleable material, but could still be beaten out of shape, and had to be regularly sharpened. Steel on the other hand was much harder and could be sharpened to an edge, and retain that edge. However, it was also brittle, and could easily shatter if the force of impact was large enough.

Pattern welding took the advantages of both materials, and combined them to negate the disadvantages of both. For those familiar with the Japanese style of sword forging, they already now that the Katana is created by folding a harder steel layer over a softer iron core. The folded edge would then be sharpened and hold the edge, while the soft iron on the inside absorbed the vibrations of impact during combat. However, the method of folding the steel over the iron leaves the soft iron exposed on one end. This was not an issue in the case of forging Katanas, as the soft edge was also the inside of the curve, and wasn't used for fighting.

Viking swords, and its predecessors, however were all double edged weapons. Meaning that folding the steel over the iron was never an option, as the edge that would be created would remain the weaker edge. Instead of folding, while a viking sword was forged the smith would take a bar of iron, and five smaller bars of steel. Keeping the iron in the center the smith would then weave the bars of steel around the iron, creating a blade that perfectly encased the iron center, and created a steel shell that could be beaten and sharpened into edges.

Because of this forging technique, Viking swords had both the properties of iron and steel. They were hard, held an edge, and could not be bent out of shape. They were also flexible, and could bend just enough to prevent them from shattering after use.

A common feature of Viking swords was a fuller, which ran down the length (31.5" long) of the blade in the center. It was a groove that served the dual purpose of lightening the blade, but most importantly it served to stabilize the blade, and allow it to keep its straight shape more effectively. To understand how this works it helps to think of the blade as a I-beam.

The I-beam provides rigid support during construction, and is lighter and stronger than just a regular steel beam could be. Because of its shape the three plates of metal prevent each other from bending out of shape. I apologize if I can't really explain it, I'm not an engineer, but this is how it was explained to me by a researcher of medieval weaponry.

Another iconic, not functional, feature of Viking blades can be seen on the pommel, the counterweight at the edge of the hilt. Usually, to some variation or another the pommel featured five nubs arranged along the bottom of the pommel.

Social Role
Oddly enough, the sword was not the preferred weapon of Vikings. Instead the average Viking would choose cheaper weapons such as axes and spears. Swords were reserved for the richer members of society, those that could actually afford them. Beowulf, being a Prince, would definitely be one such who could afford such a weapon.

What's even more interesting is Unferth's gifting of Hrunting to Beowulf. If the sword was even half as magnificent as it is described as, then Unferth was a wealthy man indeed. Even more impressive is the fact that he gave this weapon to Beowulf, and what an incredible gift it was. Considering how Unferth was Beowulf's main challenger, and generally displayed suspicion towards Beowulf, this event marks exactly how much Unferth's opinion of Beowulf had changed. Not only that, but it marked exactly how magnificent Beowulf was, that his deeds were so great that they caused a man who had challenged his claims to not only change his opinion, but to provide Beowulf with such a noble and rich gift.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Genesis of the Broadsword

The term "broadsword" is something of a dirty word among medieval weapons enthusiasts. Not so much because of its existence, but because of its improper use. Most people, when they think of a broadsword, think of this:

When they should be thinking of this:

The term broadsword originated around the 16th century, around the time that rapiers became popular as an urban self defense weapon. Broadswords, also known as basket-hilted swords, were military swords that were thus named for the blade that was broader compared to the rapier and basket shaped hand guard.

The term was used in reference to swords that predated the development of the rapier. Comparatively all types of swords were broader than the needle thin thrusting blades. The reason weapons enthusiasts refuse the term broadsword when used to refer to non-basket-hilted blades, is that the term was not used by the contemporary users of said swords.

The typical knightly sword, which was wielded in one hand, was known as an arming sword. The two handed blades that followed it were known as longswords, as they were comparatively longer. There are several naming conventions that I will get in to at a later date. For now all that you need to know is that the longsword and its compatriots were never referred to as broadswords.

And really, why would they be? The swords were just as broad as any sword in existence at the time. There would be no reason to refer to a sword as a broadsword when it was just as wide as any other. The major difference was in length and whether the blade was wielded in one or two hands.

It's important to make the distinction, because not only does it help make it sound like you know what you're talking about, but the major convention in naming swords is to use the names given by those who actually used the weapons. In a way, the people who lived and died by their swords earned the right to decide on the name of their weapons.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Possible Book Reviews Forthcoming

I just recently discovered the military science section in my campus library. The catalogue only showed me two possible sources that I could use for research for this blog. But when I found the admittedly small section on medieval weaponry, I had to step back for a moment to keep my hands from adding to the all ready large stack of books I wanted to take home with me.

I knew from experience that if I let myself, I would stuff my bag full of whatever I could carry, and then some. I also knew there was no way I could get read everything there during the semester. So I took a few deep breaths, I might have started to hyperventilate, and chose only four books.

Keep in mind these are hefty scholarly works, and just those four stretched my bag to its limits. After skimming through a few of the books I realized there was some fine research in here. But unfortunately nobody is ever going to read it, because the books are too busy being stuck in the basement of the library.

So I bring you a new proposal for a section on this blog. Since there is so much information out there, but it rarely comes to anyone's attention, I will write reviews of each book, and point people in the right direction for further study. I will also use the information I find, and add it to my own knowledge, to improve my future blog posts.

The book format of blog posts will probably be a long time coming, since I'm not so arrogant as to try and write an entire research book before I've delved deeper into the field. But I will share interesting tidbits about the history and function of medieval weaponry and armor.

Let me know if there are any weapons, or armor, that you are interested in knowing more about, and I'll see what I can find in my research.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Weight of a Sword

I once got into an argument about how much swords weighed. In retrospect I probably shouldn't have gotten vocal on the topic in a Red Robin. But honor had been stained, and I could not back down. Unfortunately the only weapons available were knives and forks, and those do not make for epic duels. But had it come to a duel, I would have easily won because my opponent would have picked a weapon that corresponded to what he thought swords weighed.

Meaning he would have tried to fight me with the equivalent of a fifty pound dumbbell.

He might have been under the impression that he was Cloud.

The fight would have been short, and it would have been painful. And at the time I would have gladly gone all the way, because I was furious.

Please keep in mind I do not endorse murder, not even when it is done with an awesome sword. I fully admit that I was in the wrong just by arguing, or at least getting vocal to the point that our argument disturbed the other guests. There's a time and place for everything, and a restaurant is neither a dueling field, nor is it the internet.

So please keep in mind that I know I was wrong to react the way I did. If given the chance I would have approached the situation in a completely different fashion.

Though really I probably wouldn't have. The guy was a jackass, plain and simple. Pardon the language. But he was the kind of smug prick that thought he knew everything, or at least acted that way. I didn't mind it when he talked about topics I either knew nothing about, or just didn't care about. But the moment he started talking about something I was not only very familiar with, but also quite passionate about (as you will see), I could not let his fallacy go uncorrected.

It began, innocently enough, with a discussion about how to make easy money. He, we shall call him Igor, put forward the idea of selling replica swords just by cutting them out of a sheet of metal. I told Igor that nobody would pay for that kind of crap. Among other things the balance and weight would be completely off. It would be obvious even to the uninitiated that the swords were fake and worth no one's time or money. Obviously anyone willing to spend money on a sword would know enough to recognize utter garbage when they saw it. Especially when the suggested crap would make the Uruk-Hai swords look like crafted masterpieces (at least those went through a proper forging process).

"Lurtz use tears of children for quenching."

Igor countered with, "Nobody would be able to tell the difference. And swords are so heavy anyway, it wouldn't make a difference."

I replied that, "They really weren't that heavy. The heaviest ones were five pounds at worst."

"What? That's ridiculous, they weighed at least fifty pounds."

"Fifty pounds? There's no way anyone would be able to use that. Medieval Europeans weren't so stupid that they'd build weapons they couldn't possibly wield effectively."

"They could use them," Igor said. "They were all buff, like Samoa here."

At this point Igor turned to our Tongan friend, who shall be named Samoa, to protect the innocent.

"Could you use a fifty pound sword," Igor asked.

"I don't know, maybe," Samoa said, clearly uninterested in our dispute.

I tried to point out the fallacy of assuming that Europeans could match Tongans for pure brawn, but my logic was of course ignored. I was also certain that Samoa didn't want to be involved in the discussion, and since he could, and had, attempted to stab me with a knife for fun before, I didn't press the issue.

Of course the only reasonable thing to do was point Igor in the direction of accurate reading material, to allow him the chance to atone for his crime of ignorance if he so desired. But my generous offer was met with a scathing reply.

"You're just like the people who try and give use stuff to read from their church, trying to prove us wrong."

Did I mention that I was on a mission for my church, sitting in Red Robin with all the other missionaries from our district, having an argument about how much swords weighed? Because I totally was.

The discussion pretty much ended there. What else could I say in the face of such extreme douchery? Pure, focused logic, and academic effort was no match. I could point him towards legitimate research. I could have given him a sword, literally thrust it into his hands, and once he cleaned up the blood he still would have found an excuse as to why he was right. There was just no arguing with that, and there lies my only true regret. Well, one of my regrets.

I regret acting like a putz and letting my emotions get the better of me in a discussion that should have been academic. I regret getting into the argument with someone that didn't want to listen in the first place.

But in the end, what I regret most was not carrying a sword with me. Even if he would have ignored the evidence, it would have made my argument just that much more...pointed.

For anyone interested in the specifics of how much swords weighed, check this out. I'm not sure what exactly he's saying, but he uses math to do it. That means he's smart.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Plans For The Blog

Since I am in the beginning stages of planning this blog, I've been toying around with different ideas for how I want to run this. After talking to my professor I decided to play around with the format a little. I will still do the book format, but the posts will be short, since this is a blog, and not a book.

While I do want this to be a reference source for writers, I also want to keep it as fun as possible for everyone else. So any suggestions are welcome.