Sunday, March 30, 2008

Practice Longswords

Frankly, I think Albion makes the best swords I have ever seen; I am currently trying to save for an Earl, I'd sell my soul for their Munich, and I wish I could justify buying their Poitier—it's the best-handling arming sword I've ever touched. Unfortunately, there's no reason at all, from a WMA standpoint, to ever own a sharp—they're purely for decoration. You can't practice with a partner with a sharp because you'll kill each other, yet all practice should be done with a partner or on a pell, and the pell will ruin your edge (in period they used double-weighted swords or swords of wood on pells), and you should never engage in test cutting because it will ruin your ability to cut correctly (see why here).

On the other hand, I'm extremely disappointed in Albion's line of practice longswords. They offer two longswords, the Liechtenauer and the Meyer, and neither is worth owning. We already know how medieval sword makers made practice swords because there are two extant models at the Met (these were copied by Arms & Armor for the Fechterspiel; you can see them in the picture at the beginning of this essay) and another in Switzerland (which was copied by Hanwei for their Federfechter), but Albion ignored these excellent examples and, like SCAdians with no discernable interest in history, decided to figure things out on their own.

A practice sword should have thick edges to minimize injuries during practice, but doing so makes the blade far too heavy. As a result, medieval sword makers made swords with very narrow blades and thick edges; in essence, the same amount of steel as a sharp, just redistributed. They also added a very wide reinforcement called a Schilt ("shield") near the cross to reinforce an area that would be very prone to breakage if it had a narrow blade. When you do all of that you have a weapon identical to the Arms & Armor Fechterspiel, and that's why our Schule uses them exclusively.

Albion, on the other hand, chose to ignore the medieval way of doing things and simply make a wide, deep fuller down the length of their blade in order to reduce overall blade weight. This works, but it's not a medieval practice and therefore has no value: After all, why practice a medieval art while eschewing medieval practices? Worse, Albion's Meyer is a Fechterspiel-style sword of the sort depicted in Meyer's Fechtbuch, but still used the wide, deep fuller to lighten the blade, even though they added a Schilt as Meyer's Fechtbuch shows; in other words, they're the same style of trainer as the ones at the Met that Arms & Armor copied for their Fechterspiel, but either Albion doesn't know that (which would be a terrible shame), or they just don't care—which would be an even worse disgrace.

The Arms & Armor Fechterspiel is a superb weapon. It handles as well as any sword I’ve ever used, is designed and built according to medieval designs and principles, is durable and very safe to use (bearing in mind that it’s still a weapon, and while not sharp is still capable of lethal blows) and is quite handsome as well. The balance is spectacular. The Fechterspiel comes in two versions, one with polished furniture and the other with rough castings, but frankly, there’s little to choose between them. I own two, one finished and one not, and they have held up marvelously in heavy practice.

The point of the Fechterspiel is simply rounded off, and while nice for some kinds of practice, tends to slide off too easily during actual thrusting practice. To compensate I purchased rubber bird blunts from an archery supply house and taped them in place. When you thrust against a mask they “stick” enough to simulate an effective thrust. In addition, the flex in the Fechterspiel blade is such that it absorbs most reasonable thrusts so they don’t hurt as much.

The only slight criticism I can make of the Fechterspiel is that the leather on the hilt has a thick seam which can rub your hands badly over the course of a long practice. I wish Arms & Armor could find a better way to sew the leather, but I’d rather have it as it is than have a glued edge that comes apart in the course of heavy practice as often happens with lesser weapons.

Of course, just as with any tool the Fechterspiel requires maintenance. They’re made of steel and so prone to rust, and while the steel is hardened well it still tends to get nicked in practice. I assembled a small kit for sword maintenance: It contains silicone-impregnated cloths from a firearms supply company, blocks of polishing compound suspended in a rubber matrix much like large pencil erasers, a file, a rag, a bottle of machine oil, and spare rubber blunts and tape. When I get home from practice I use the file to eliminate nicks and burrs in the blade and cross, then smooth the filed areas with the polishing blocks. I then wipe the blades and furniture with the silicone cloth unless I don’t intend to use them for quite some time, in which case I oil them carefully. It is very important to dress nicks and burrs right away because otherwise they can lead to weak spots in the blade and because they can draw blood from your partner when practicing things like slicing techniques.

The Fechterspiel is the only steel longsword allowed for practice in my Schule.

I have not yet had the pleasure of handling the CAS/Hanwei Federfechter, but like the Fechterspiel, it is a copy of an extant medieval practice sword currently in a museum in Switzerland. I have, however, had occasion to discuss this sword with people I trust. In general, most people found the sword to be an acceptable practice weapon with a few caveats: First, the blade has too much flex, which makes Winden practice problematic. Second, some of the parts are too “squared off”, which tends to make them a bit sharp (a few minutes with a file could probably solve this). Finally, some of the blades have broken in the course of normal practice. Whether these breaks are the result of an inherent flaw in the weapon or exceptions that represent swords slipping through quality control can’t be known at this time. I have to admit, however, that I find these swords extraordinarily ugly. They’re not inaccurate in design, but in the middle ages, just as today, some work was more elegant and more beautiful than others; these simply represent an aesthetic I can’t find appealing. Of course, that should have no bearing on their value as practice swords, it’s merely my taste. Even with all the flaws these swords have, they are very inexpensive for what they are and may deserve some careful consideration.