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Ask me about swords.

Discussion in 'Research' started by Anders Ämting, Jan 20, 2012.

  1. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

    Apart from the modern foam for padding, SCA helmets are pretty much exact duplicates of historical ones. (Well, we use welded grill visors a lot more, since they're a lot easier to breathe in, a bit easier to see out of, and welding's a whole lot easier with electricity. ;) ) The helm is, in fact, the only part of the armor that is required to be made out of metal: at least 16-gauge steel, though most people I know use 14-gauge… which puts the helmets at the same thickness as the bulk of museum collection pieces. Any other piece of rigid protection you're allowed to make out of plastic. Part of the reason is because metal can be dented–whereas plastic doesn't dent: it either transmits the entire force to the wearer… or it breaks. Of course, the metal doesn't usually dent either, so the first result is fairly normal; it's the second we're mostly worried about.

    But, no, I wouldn't want to trade in the foam for horsehair stuffing. Even when it's packed in fairly tightly, though (and you'd much rather have it tight than loose: you want head and helm to move together, not have the helm bounced into your head), the padding still takes up a fair amount of the blow… which has already been reduced by having the impact spread out across the whole head, plus having to overcome the inertia of the helm itself. Though an even bigger factor can be make of helm and angle of impact–which is why helms with more rounded profiles came to be favored over time. (In the SCA, we refer to barrel helms as "duke's landing strips." :D ) If you can get the blade to glance off, it rarely matters how much force is behind it… which is also why I said impact weapons have an advantage: they're much more forgiving (for the wielder) when it comes to angle.

    Comfort is another story. While the discomfort of wearing armor is generally overrated, there are very few people I know who don't take their helmets off between fights–even those who do have grillwork faces. Part of that is it's one of the only pieces that can be easily removed and put back on, of course… but you'll notice that football players are the same in this. If they don't expect to go right back onto the field, the hat comes off. Even when you're accustomed to wearing one, having that extra weight on your head is something few people care for; plus, considering the amount of heat your body eliminates through your scalp, taking it off is a good idea even if it were otherwise comfy.
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  2. Well, what do you mean by fitted to their wielder?
  3. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Fitted like a tailor fits clothes. Whether the blade was supposed to be in certain proportions to the size of the wielder.
  4. You asked about that earlier, right? Sorry if I forgot about it.

    Yeah, as I understand it, it was a proportional thing most of the time. The tip of a katana held losely by your side should just clear the ground, the pommel of a longsword should fit under your armpit, etc, etc. I've seen seveal variations on this, but it's usually based on the size of your own body.

    Presumably, a wealthy man could have a sword custom made to fit him exactly, while someone less well off may not have been able to afford being too picky. It stands to reason that the average lenght of historical swords corresponds to the average size of the people of that time. If you weren't unusually large or unusually small, you could probably get by with most swords.

    (There's also fashion and laws to consider - sometimes longer swords would just happen to become fashionable, and sometimes you weren't allowed to carry swords above a certain lenght. Queen Elizabeth famously passed a law restricting the maximum lenght of the rapier because the extremely long swords everyone had started carrying annoyed her. Similar things occured in Japan: In the Nanbokucho period, swords suddenly became enormous for unclear reasons, seeing the rise of what would become the odachi. Later, laws were passed that restricted the lenght of katana you could carry in public, making said odachi illegal.)

    But all that said, we do get these measurements from actual fencing manuals, so it's likely a swordmaster would have instructed his students to at least try to find weapons that fit them.
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2012
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  5. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    Thanks, Anders. Do you happen to know any examples for one-handed swords?
  6. Well, I don't think there's a universial way of determining the ideal lenght of a single-hander since the standard length varies between type and the proper length depends on how the sword is meant to be used.

    The only example I know is from George Silver, who said: "Of the length of weapons, and how every man may fit himself to the perfect length of his weapon, according to his own stature, with brief reasons wherefore they ought to be so. To know the perfect length of your sword, you shall stand with your sword and dagger drawn, as you see this picture, keeping out straight your dagger arm, drawing back your sword as far as conveniently you can, not opening the elbow joint of your sword arm, and look what you can draw within your dagger, that is the just length of your sword, to be made according to your own stature."

    The sword he's talking about being the British baskethilt, which was originally a cavalry sword and thus fairly long. If I understand him correctly, my ideal blade should be about 27" long. That's more then I would be comfortable with, but probably correct. (He further states that the blade of your longsword should be the full length of your sword, which actually seems to correspond to the fit-under-your-armpit thing.)

    For medieval arming swords, the problem is that there just aren't a lot of surviving manuscripts to go by. The oldest one is the I.33 manuscript from the 1300s - it may have something on sword lenght but I'd have to ask around to find out.

    Also, from what I've heard, I think the blade of a Chinese jian is supposed to be as long or slightly longer then your own arm. Don't quote me on that, though.
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  7. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

    Speaking purely from experience here, most of the one-handed combat "swords" (i.e. rattan sticks) I've seen used in the SCA fall into a fairly narrow length range: if you drop your sword hand straight down to your side and hold the sword against your arm, the tip tends to come up to about the top of the shoulder, give or take an inch. This isn't based on anything historical, mind you; on the other hand, it also isn't based on scarcity or cost of resources… the only controlling factor here is what the user feels most comfortable with. There are, of course, people who decide they're more comfortable with longer or shorter weapons–you might be surprised how often it's "shorter"–but given the absence of other factors here in choosing a length, this might give a good sense of what works the best for the greatest number of people. (If Anders is correct, this is almost exactly the guideline for the jian.)

    Elizabeth probably just got fed up with people tripping over their own weapons… as steel technology improved and swords got narrower, single-handed blades sometimes got so long that putting training wheels on the scabbard would have been desirable.… :p Wikipedia, that endlessly reliable source of well-researched information :rolleyes: , gives lengths for the espada ropera of up to 51 inches (130 cm). Which is friggin' excessive for anybody. Actually, it says that was the "blade" length, not overall length–which I suspect may be erroneous, though I could well be wrong there: I haven't looked further. It should be noted that this was definitely not a sword intended for use in armored combat. In spite of its name, it was not purely a "dress" weapon, however: it was intended, and used, for dueling.
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
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  8. Well, on one hand, the fencing style will depend on which type of weapon most people use. But on the other, that fencing style will still be built around that specific sword. It's kind of a "the chicken and the egg" situation.

    One thing to keep in mind is that when modern people first began their attempts to rebuild medival fighting systems, they used weapons based on historical artifacts. But they forgot to take into account that people were actually a lot smaller back in medieval times due to a generally poorer diet, so the swords in question are actually too small on average for us modern westerners.

    Now, you could argue that if most people train with swords that are a few inches shorter and they learn to use them well non the less, that's just a natural evolution of the fighting style. (Not that evolution is desirable to people trying to recreate history, but still.) And if they end up prefering shorter swords due to having practiced with them, there is no harm done, right?

    But at the same time, some people have moved on to properly sized weapons and they tend to claim this actually gives you a much better understanding of historical techniques. So it's somewhat debatable if "the sword the feels right" is the same thing as "the sword that works best."

    She also banned overly large ruffs (those clown-collars people liked to wear back then) around the same time. Legend has it she posted guards at the city gates who's job was to break the swords and tear the ruffs of anyone who violated these laws.

    Ha! That actually happened, I've seen pictures. Though, that was in Napoleonic times, when very long, low-slung cavalry sabers came in fashion. Don't think I've seen a rapier with that kind of construction.

    Yeah, I kinda doubt that. I don't think I've heard of a rapier much longer then a meter, and those tend to be the late Spanish cuphilts.

    Still, Elizabeth's law set the maximum length at one yard, about 91 cm, so the swords of the time might very well have approached or even exceeded a meter.
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  9. The Din

    The Din Troubadour

    I haven't read every post, so hopefully this hasn't come up before. In a scene of mine, a sword falls in a fire and proceeds to heat up. My question is: is there a certain type of metal that would better retain its shape when red hot? Also, would such a heated blade pierce chainmail easier? I had hoped to have my MC pull it from the fire and drive it straight through someone wearing chain...
  10. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

    Any metal will retain its shape when "red"-hot–well, assuming that "red" is the color it turns when heated, at least: this is the coolest notable color-change when a piece of iron gets heated. Depending on the fire, it may not get any hotter… or even that hot. A common wood camp- or hearth-fire won't heat it to orange, let alone yellow or white. (You never want to heat iron white-hot, by the by: I've seen it done, and the results are rarely pretty. Spectacular, sometimes… but not pretty.) Then it depends on how long the metal is left in the fire: it takes a couple minutes in a coal fire to get it up to even a barely-workable cherry red. (You really don't want to try working it when it's that cool, either: best case, you're going to be expending a lot of effort for minimal results.)

    Even after heating, the metal will retain its shape until it gets heated to near its melting point, or until you hit it with/on something capable of deforming it. Which brings us to:

    Penetrating metal armor once it's heated? No. It's the sword that's become softer, not the armor… it would perform worse, not better (assuming it was hot enough to affect its performance in any way at all). So, basically, if what you're after is ramming a hot piece of metal into another person, the answer is if it could penetrate anyway, it could do so while red-hot. If what you're after is having it penetrate more readily, 'fraid not.
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
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  11. Ravana pretty much got it right - metals in general become softer as they are heatened up, which will make them less effective against armor.

    If the sword in question is made of tempered steel, heating it to this point will anneal the blade, which is to say the heat treatment will be completely ruined - even after cooling, the blade will be too soft to keep a decent edge. At the very least, it will have to be rehardened and retempered.

    True. Granted, getting iron/steel that hot requires a lot of heat.
  12. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

    What are leaf-shaped blades good for, and how long are they typically?
  13. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

    I have a friend whose well-earned nickname, among blacksmithing circles, is "Sparky".… :p
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  14. Leaf-shaped swords were popular in the bronze age, reaching a sort of peak at ca 1400 BC and vanishing in the last couple of centuries BC. They were typically short - the longest are from the Hallstatt culture where leaf-bladed swords could be as long as 80 cm.

    I've seen some debate on the purpose of the shape, but the general opinion seems to be that leaf-blades were designed to be both efficient cutters and good thrusters against the armor of the time. This seems to make sense to me - the leaf-blade strikes me like a good way to maximize the performance of short cut-and-thrust swords using the technology and understanding available at the time. The curved edge theoretically* allows for better slicing attacks then a straight one, it can have a finer edge at the foible and a sturdier forte, and the cutting part of the blade naturally becomes wide in relation to the accuteness of the point. Some also argue that the leaf shape concentrated mass at the point of percussion of the blade, letting it deliver heavier blows with a comparably small blade. Others say that a good leaf-blade design has the same mass distribution as a straight one. I have no particular opinion on that since I've never handled one.

    The last culture to use leaf bladed swords were probably the Romans (with their Mainz-style gladius) who then moved on to straight blades as their military tactics favored thrusts above cuts and sraighter blades were more economical. (Resulting in the Pompei-style gladius.) After that the metalurgical technology improved and swords become longer and stronger, which made the advantages of the leaf-blade become obselete.

    In short, this type of blade has some merit but you will probably only find it on shorter swords, possibly made from inferior metal. You absolutely can make a long steel leaf-blade that does the job, but it won't be that much better then a regular one. Also, this is just something I heard in passing, but apparently long leaf-bladed steel swords are tricker to forge then regular ones.

    *I say theretically because there is something of a debate regaring the benefits of curvature in cutting efficiency as well.
    Last edited: May 18, 2012
  15. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

    What about a leaf-bladed sword forged by a god out of indestructible volcanic glass? A long shot, I know, but bear with me.
  16. I would say that if the sword is made out of indestructible obsidian (!) the exact shape probably doesn't matter - it's not something you want to be on the business end of regardless. And if the god wants to make it a leaf-blade, I certainly wouldn't argue with him about it. :p

    What I'm saying is, when you start to use words like "indestructible" and "god", you are sort of past the point of taking realistic limitations into account.
  17. Mindfire

    Mindfire Istar

    Ahh. Very true.
  18. Philippjs

    Philippjs Acolyte

    I was wandering how a longsword was made when they where still exclusive to upper-class nobles during the medieaval times. Wasn't the edge made of harder steel and the centre made of softer steel? Also, how does swordplay actually work? I've gatherd that it isn't a matter of smacking the edges into each other's blades, so I would really appriciate an explination of how people actually fought with longswords. Thanks in advance, and sorry if it's an annyoing question :p
  19. Drasn

    Drasn Dreamer

    First, I want to say thank you all for the useful information in this thread. Second, my question: Does your knowledge of blades extend to daggers? If so I am interested in the uses of wavy bladed daggers, I believe it's called a kris. Was the wavy blade purely for aesthetics(ie ceremonial or decorative) or did it serve some other purpose?
  20. The answer here depends a bit on what you mean by "longsword." Many use it to refer to the typical single-handed medieval sword, but it's more accurately used for the later style of two-handed swords of the late medieval and Renaissance periods.

    For the actual historical longsword, I believe they typically weren't laminated - by this time steel technology was advanced enough that lamination wasn't necessary. In fact, most medieval swords would have had monosteel blades. I think I've heard that a few surviving artifacts have something approaching Asian-style differential hardening, but don't quote me on that. Even if it's true, it would have been very rare.

    As far as I know, lamination blades were far more common in the earlier iron/viking age and early medieval times, as were pattern welding. Swords of that time were predominantly single-handed cutting swords.

    I should also add that I'm pretty sure swords in Europe were never actually "exclusively" the weapons of the upper class: Anyone who could afford a sword were probably allowed to own one. In fact, the vikings considered owning a sword to be one of the privilages of any free man. And in the feudal era, owning weapons was not only permitted but often expected of you.

    Exactly how a sword is used is going to depend heavily on the type of sword used. And, again, it depends on what you mean by longsword.

    In general, though, the objective of any type of swordfighting is naturally to strike your opponent with the edge of the sword, or pierce him with the point, and to avoid him doing the same to you, typically by employing parries.

    When striking your opponent, you want to hit him with the upper part of the blade close to the point, where most of the momentum of the blow will be focused. This part of the sword is called the "foible", and the point that delivers the most force is called the "point of percussion." When parrying, you want to intercept your opponent's sword with the part of your blade closest to the hilt. This part is called the "forte."

    When you cross swords, the ideal is to cross your forte with your opponent's foible. Due to leverage, that gives you control over your opponent's sword - you can push his blade around but he'll have a hard time moving your blade. It also makes it much harder for a blow to break through your guard. This is pretty universial, because a lever is always a lever.

    Ideally, your parry should block or deflect your opponent's attack in a way that opens up his defense and at the same time places your own sword in a position to strike - you don't want to block, then move into and attack position, giving your enemy a chance to defend himself.

    Both attacks and parries are carried out from certain stances or guards. These are specific to the weapon and fighting style, but the principles tend to be largely universial - practitioners of kendo often note that longsword stances resemble their own, or rapier fencer will find similarities in Chinese styles, etc, etc.

    Now, as far as I know, iron/viking age and medieval arming swords were almost exclusively used with shields and since there aren't any known surviving fencing manuals for that far back, most reconstruction attempts come down to a lot of educated guessing. I'm pretty sure the only manual that bring the subject of shields up is the I:33, which concerns the smaller buckler rather then full-sized shields. Shields then faded out along with other types of armor and using swords for both attack and defense became the norm.

    (In movies and other media, you sometimes see people battle with medieval swords without using shields. As far as we know this wasn't actually done, as the sword was a battlefield weapon where the shield would also be present. However, it's possible to adapt Renaissance messer styles for the medieval arming sword -see video below- so it's at least theoretically possible such a fighting style might have existed. We just have no evidence to indicate this really happened.)

    Finally, if your fencing style strives for any kind of battlefield realism (as opposed to a dueling style or sport) it will probably include some type of close combat or grappling techniques.

    That's the basic gist of how swordsmanship works. Here are some good videos to give you a better idea of differances and similarities of the various styles:

    A compilation of longsword techniques.
    Example of advanced longsword sparring.
    And extensive but very enlightening lesson on sword and shield.
    Various messer techniques.
    Messer techniques applied to medieval swords.
    British-style baskethilt techniques.
    Polish (I think) saber fencing.
    Some fairly typical kenjutsu kata.
    Chinese jian, single-handed.
    Chinese jian, two handed.

    I know this is a huge list of stuff but, trust me, there's much, much more to be found online.

    I'm not quite as good at daggers and knives, but I do know a guy who is.

    As for the kris, I do believe they have a religious importance to the Philippino. However, some are less wavy then others and some have completely straight blades, so I don't think the wavy shape is essential to the weapon in a practical sense, no.

    Wavy or flame bladed swords (so-called flammard or flamberge blades) actually started to show up in Europe during the Renaissance as well - predominantly on the large zweihänder great swords but they also appeared on more common single-handed cut-and-thrust swords.

    There is some debate on wether this shape of blade actually had a practical purpose or if it was just an artistic expression. As with the leaf-blades we just brough up and the issue of curved vs straight swords, you tend to get a different answer depending on who you ask.

    Like the leaf-blades, it's possible flame-bladed swords were designed to increase cutting ability in otherwise straight swords. However, my personal theory is that flame-bladed swords were mostly made for aestetic appeal - particularly the zweihanders also tend to be fairly ornate in design and were favored by Renaissance mercenairies known for having a distinct showy appearance. Likewise, the shape of the kris appears to have been symbolically rather then practically significant.

    It's also worth noting that wavy blades were always uncommon everywhere except in the Phillipines, and that they had vanished completely in Europe come the 19th century - a period that otherwise saw an extreme degree of experimentation with various blade shapes. So it's likely they weren't especially superior to ordinary swords.

    On an interesting side note: There are a number of surviving naval cutlasses that actually have saw-shaped edges. Apparently the reasoning was that the sword could function both as a weapon and a tool. But, again, this idea never seemed to really catch on.
    Last edited: May 28, 2012

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