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.

10 comments:

michael_west said...

"Unfortunately, there's no reason at all, from a WMA standpoint, to ever own a sharp—they're purely for decoration."

You seem to love to be the iconoclast, but you're wrong. The sword arts (Western and, Eastern) are romantic pursuits at their heart and, they emanate from a desire to experience something that people from long ago did with a real sword. To deny the real sword is to deny the foundation of your art.
You seem to want to portray historical sword fighting and, study as some dry scientific function, when it's quite the opposite. It's romance with the past, pure and, simple. It's emotional and, really of little use other than entertainment in todays world.
Be as serious as you want, but to make such a statement seems to indicate that your trying to make your art something that it obviously isn't

michael_west said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hugh Knight said...

Dear Michael:

I'm not trying to be anything, merely to keep people from falling into error. From the WMA viewpoint—that is to say from the viewpoint of the practice of a martial art—there is no valid reason to own a sharp. You can't use it to practice anything important: In partner practice you'd hurt one another; in pell practice you'd destroy both your sword and your pell (over time); and no one should ever practice test cutting. You could do simple guard drills, etc., in the air but they're of relatively little value, and a sharp sword is no better at that than a practice sword.

But I never said "don't own a sharp"—I own sharps! I said they have nothing to do with the practice of the WMA. Read only what I write, I try to do it with great precision.

Moreover, steel practice swords *are* real swords; every bit as real as a sharp if they're made well and accurately (e.g., the Arms and Armor Fechterspiel).

As for your romantic notions, I reject them. I find romantics have little sense of history and they believe Victorian fantasies (or worse, modern ones) to be every bit as valid as reality, which they manifestly are not. Romantics tend to see historical things through heavily-tinted glasses, and, as a result, ignore the uglier realities which are every bit as important as the ones they purport to enjoy.

The practice of a sword art, whether Eastern or Western, has nothing whatsoever to do with romance to me, it has to do with the study of history and culture. I find these arts *interesting*, not romantic, just as I find other aspects of living history interesting, but not romantic.

Next time, perhaps you might leave a comment *asking* me about what I’m saying rather than leaping in accusing me of being wrong.

Regards,
Hugh

michael_west said...

"Unfortunately, there's no reason at all, from a WMA standpoint, to ever own a sharp—they're purely for decoration."

I think that statement was bold enough to warrant a comment, rather than first asking a question. Why say something like that in that manner, when all you could have said was real swords could be damaged, or dangerous when used for practice. WMA without real weapons is something else, perhaps as kendo is to kenjitsu. A real sword is the symbol of what you are learning. It's not a sport, it's a fighting art that will lead to death, or dismemberment, even though we have no desire to do such things. If you're not interested in real swords, I doubt anyone would be interested in practice weapons.

Also, by Romantic, I mean the feeling that many get when picking up a sword and, saying to themselves, "hmm, how do you use this?", or reading through a book about swordsmanship and, becoming not only interested, but excited about the knowledge portrayed. History and, culture are interesting, but also exciting which to me is a piece of romanticism. It's the discipline of the romantic, or emotional mind with reality, but they both go together.

Thank you.

Mike West

Hugh Knight said...

Hello Mike,

*****I think that statement was bold enough to warrant a comment, rather than first asking a question. Why say something like that in that manner, when all you could have said was real swords could be damaged, or dangerous when used for practice.*****

But I did say that in the original post. I said:
“…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…”

*****WMA without real weapons is something else, perhaps as kendo is to kenjitsu. A real sword is the symbol of what you are learning. It's not a sport, it's a fighting art that will lead to death, or dismemberment, even though we have no desire to do such things. If you're not interested in real swords, I doubt anyone would be interested in practice weapons.*****

You may not be aware of this, but most traditional schools make no use of real swords (called “Habiki”) at all in the practice of Kenjutsu. A few, such as Maniwa Nen-ryu, do, but most do not. All of their practice, from day one to the granting of a Menkyo Kaiden, is conducted with bokuto (wooden swords, often called boken in the USA for some reason). Students of Iai-jutsu or Iai-do do use swords, some of which are sharp, but many of them use dull practice swords called iai-to, some of which are even made of aluminum.

There is simply no reason, from the standpoint of WMA, to have a sharp sword. You may want one because you like it as an objet d’art (and I do), but you shouldn’t confuse that as having a relevance to the practice of swordsmanship. You can go through an entire lifetime of WMA practice with nothing but a waster and a Fechterspiel and do perfectly well; no other sword is necessary or even useful.

*****Also, by Romantic, I mean the feeling that many get when picking up a sword and, saying to themselves, "hmm, how do you use this?", or reading through a book about swordsmanship and, becoming not only interested, but excited about the knowledge portrayed. History and, culture are interesting, but also exciting which to me is a piece of romanticism. It's the discipline of the romantic, or emotional mind with reality, but they both go together.******

We’ll have to agree with your definition of romanticism. In my experience it is always used to view the past through rose-colored glasses to the detriment of historical accuracy.

By the way, you made a double post, so I deleted one of them; no offense intended, I assure you.

Regards,
Hugh

michael_west said...

No problem with the removal of the double post.

A real sword is always the reminder of what you are training for. If you lose your sense of respect for the art, then pick up the real sword! It will put everything back into perspective. What you are learning is killing techniques by people who actually used those techniques in real duels and, in battle. The real sword should be there for comparison, which is needed to really understand what your doing. The aim isn't to practice with blunts, but to use blunt to prepare you to use a real sword, even if you'll never use it.
That's what the medieval teachers wanted and, that's what we should do if we want to resurrect their art.

Thank you.

Hugh Knight said...

Hi Mike,

I don't mean any hint of an insult here, but that's your romantic side speaking. Even the Enrstfechten masters show their people practicing with training swords, as this picture shows:

http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/~db/bsb00001840/images/index.html?seite=124

None of us tosay will *ever* use a real sword in a battle or a duel. Let's not get melodramatic, OK?

If you want to collect sharps, then by all means do so. As I said in the original blog entry, I'm saving for an Albion Earl, and I absolutely can't wait for it. More than just something interesting to have, I hope to be able to use it to show people things about how sharps worked, but even that is only necessary because of all the misconceptions people have about swords. You don't need a sharp sword for anything, but if you like them, then by all means get them. Just don't add any mystical value to them that they don't have.

Regards,
Hugh

michael_west said...

It is correct that we'll never use swords in duels, or battle, but that's what the art is about. That's why you want to practice the techniques of the masters and, not make up your own.

I should also clarify that my point on swords used in duels and battle wasn't to mean that we would use them that way, or that they were used for practice during their era, but that the use of practice swords was a means to an end, not the end, which is why a real sword is needed for comparison purposes.

The practice sword represents the longsword, so the longsword should be a part of the package, even if it is just sitting there on the table while you practice. It has a practical use, not just a romantic/emotional one.

Thank you.

Errant Venture said...

Out of curiosity, where do you get the polishing blocks that you mention in your sword maintenance kit? My own kit is fairly rudimentary, and I've been looking for a means to smooth out the filed portions.

Hugh Knight said...

Hello,

I use Sandflex abrasive blocks. I get them from www.woodcraft.com , but lots of places carry them--just do a Google search for a supplier. They really are wonderful.