How to Evaluate a Historical Sword Specimen
Advice for Students of Historical Fencing Studies
An article by John Clements
Few enthusiasts have the opportunity to examine in person an actual surviving specimen of a historical sword. Getting to handle a real Medieval or Renaissance weapon in good condition is a rarity. If and when you do it's a thrill, but what then? How do you form an educated opinion? What criteria are valuable when considering a piece?
Assuming that any piece you get the chance to handle is indeed a real historical artifact and not a modern fake or Victorian-era copy (making that determination is a whole other subject), there are a few key things you can keep in mind.
First, consider a sword as a fighting tool, and not from a curatorial or conservational perspective, as a mere historical artifact or artistic object. Regard the sword first and foremost from a martial point of view. Is it a functional weapon? In spathology, the study and classification of swords, functionality will tell you about form. As a fencer, functionality and utility are what you should always have foremost in mind when considering any weapon.
Looking at any kind of European sword you should be able to immediately recognize its style as belonging to a particular age. You may even be able to categorize it according to the Oakeshott typology. But, more generally, you can immediately discern whether it is a cutter, a thruster, or a cut-and-thrust blade, as well as whether it was intended more for military or civilian use and whether it was intended more for armoured or unarmoured fighting.
It is usually not that hard to tell if a sword you're looking at is ancient, from the early or late Middle Ages, the early or late Renaissance, or the 18th or 19th centuries. Dating a sword precisely can be difficult because similar blade forms were used over many centuries and older blades were often refitted with newer-style hilts. Generally, however, you should be able to fix a piece's date of origin to within a century because certain forms were developed for facing certain armours in use at particular times, although a blade could remain in effective use long after a given type of armour had gone out of style.
Among other names, a European sword of the Medieval and Renaissance era may be labeled according to its general family: short, arming, war, long, bastard, great, two-handed, tuck/estoc, falchion, side, back, rapier, small/court, saber, cutlass, spadroon, and broad. Rather than be overly concerned with categorizing an antique sword, though, when you handle it you should be more interested in getting a feel for its attributes as a weapon.
How Does it Feel?
In order to acquire an appreciation for its heft, with the permission of your host or the sword's owner, and after having first looked around you to determine the space and room you have, without any abrupt or sudden movements slowly hold the weapon in known fighting stances appropriate for its kind. Imagine how the weapon would have been handled when wielded in earnest. That's what it was designed to do in the first place, after all. Try moving it smoothly through positions to get a feel for how its center of gravity would permit it to act. Obviously, you must refrain from performing any quick or large actions (you don't want to alarm any non-practitioners present).
Hold the weapon as if on guard. Pause, relax, tune out everything else and clear your head. Feel the mass of the sword in your hand. The most immediate thing you should notice is its weight or lack thereof. Whatever kind of sword it is, the weapon should feel pretty sweet to a student of historical fencing. If it feels anything otherwise, make a mental note of that.
From its appearance as well as its feel you should be able to make an educated guess as to whether a specimen was a ceremonial or processional piece, a decorative side arm, or a truly effective fighting weapon of personal armed combat suited to the environment is was designed for. An historical sword may have survived the centuries because it went relatively unused or because it was preserved as prized and special. If the piece is unusual it's even possible that it was built as an experiment and represents no common type. Whether or not a piece is authentic or a forgery can sometimes be determined by an experienced eye and hand based on the feel of the sword alone (though, remember, the owner may not even be sure themselves whether their piece is truly authentic).
As you examine a sword, keep in mind the three general divisions of its bladestrong, middle, and weakand the essential function of each for guarding, binding, and striking.
If you are allowed to give the weapon a quick, firm shake, does the blade wobble? Blades should never wobble within the hilt, but some pieces not in good condition may feel loose.
Never attempt to test any historical sword by flexing or bending its blade. Not only is this kind of "flex testing" inherently damaging to a sword's structure, you might actually break the blade if it has some hidden damage or forging flaw. It also tells you next to nothing about how the weapon might perform under high-impact stress. Historically, a new piece might be tested by pressing and bending it against a solid surface in order to check its resilience (not flexibility). But these weapons were not designed to repeatedly flex over and over like the spring steels of modern sporting weapons or soft, cheap replicas. Instead, they had to be capable of withstanding high impacts without either breaking or bending.
The most important thing to note is the blade's overall geometry. Look carefully at the whole length of the blade on both sides: Is it straight or curved? Parallel-edged or tapering? Single or double-edged? With a fully or partially sharpened back edge? Is the point rounded, acutely-tapered, or clipped? Does it seem better suited for one-handed use, two-handed use or either? Is the blade's cross-section flatter, diamond shaped, or lenticular (oval)? Does the cross-section thicken or narrow along its length? At what locations does it appear to change along its length? Does it get narrower as it tapers or stay the same general width and thickness? Does the blade widen or narrow toward the point? On a rapier, note whether the taper of the point is needle-like or flatter and knife-like and whether the cross-section at the final quarter becomes rounded and oval, or flatter and thinner. Look also to see if the portion of the blade near the hilt is flatter and sharper or thicker and blunter.
Does the blade's cross-section visibly change in thickness along its length? Does any change relate to fullers or risers or obvious taper? When you steadily hold the sword out horizontally does the blade droop slightly? Does it droop just at the last quarter or at another position? Some cutting blades are much thinner at the final quarter toward the point and may show a slight droop. However, rapiers should always be exceptionally straight, unless damaged.
When viewed from the side is the blade itself visibly straight or warped and bent anywhere? If so, at what location? Nearer the hilt where it defends more or nearer the point where it strikes more? Is the blade in good condition or is it pitted and corroded? Is it clean and oiled or rusting and dusty? Does it show evidence of any modern cleaning by machine tools or hand polish? Does the edge thicken or thin along its length? Do the edges appear to fade into the flats of the blade or are there discernable bevels visible? Does the edge appear to be sharp or blunt? Never, but never, test any sword edge by running your hand or fingers or anything else over it (not even briefly with a light tap of a finger tip). It's both impolite and dangerous.
On the ricasso, notice if it is thicker and blunt or actually sharpened. Is the ricasso particularly thick or long? It is flared out with flanges or parallel to the blade? Does it square-off acutely or fade into the edges? Is it decorated? Does the sword have a chape (a leather wrap or a metal casing) around the ricasso? Can you detect whether the ricasso is the same thickness as the tang?
Do the blade's edges show any distortion or warping at spots? If so, what size are those features and along what portion of the edge do they appear? Do the edges show signs of filing or sharpening by hand tool or machine? Is the edge condition uniform or are there sections where it is different? Does the blade itself show any wear or tear? Does any damage appear to be high-impact and abrasive, or just dents and scrapes? Does the blade appear to have hit something thick and solid or something thin and hard? Does the damage look recent or is it faded, corroded, or covered by patina? Does it have any nicks or gouges? Are there any chips, folds, or scalloped-out portions? Are some sections thinner or shallower than others? Is the damage near the expected striking area or near the assumed parrying section of the blade? Does the edge show any possible sign of repair or recent re-polishing? Does it appear to have been sanded smooth or filed down anywhere?
If the blade is broken, notice what kind of break it has. Straight across or with a "v" or "s" shape? Where did it break? Toward the last quarter, in the middle, or toward the first quarter at the hilt? Does the break show signs of corrosion or seem recent?
Do all the parts of the hilt appear to be of the same make and material? Has there been any obvious attempt at restoration? Does the guard show signs of trauma or cutting? What cross-sectional shape do the cross and other parts of the guard have? Is the guard tight and secure or loose? Is it bent anywhere? Is there indication of anything filling gaps or spaces where the cross meets the blade? Does the hilt have symmetrical or asymmetrical side rings or other projections? Does it have one or two finger rings? If it is a closed hilt or basket-hilt, is there a thumb-ring inside attached to the grip? Does any knuckle-bow attach to the pommel or stop short of it? If there are bars and counter-bars on a close-hilt note whether they are connected together as a solid piece or if they are separate.
If the tang is visible, can you tell if it is thicker than the blade? Most tangs will be thicker and wider than what you might be used to seeing on most modern replicas. What proportion of width is the tang compared to the blade at its shoulder? Does the tang taper very much or very little? Does it get thinner as well or stay the same thickness? Is the cross flush against the blade or does the blade fit into a recess in the cross? Does the edge of the blade appear to be sharp all the way down even if it fits into such a recess (this may hint that it was replaced at some point)? Note if the intersection of blade and tang (the "underarm") abruptly squares off or rapidly tapers.
If a specimen has no grip or hilt it cannot be properly evaluated as a functional weapon, since its balance, heft, and manner of gripping (i.e., its "play") cannot be determined. The same is true for especially corroded pieces or those in excavated condition. However, even there, other salient features can sometimes be visible such as the shape of the tang, or, for metallurgists and bladesmiths, the inner construction. On pieces without grips but with hilts remaining, note how the guard and pommel are attached.
Decoration and Identifying Marks
While arms collectors and curators are often obsessed with decoration on swords because that is what makes the weapons interesting or valuable as artifacts and sometimes denotes history or age, decoration is of minor interest to the martial arts practitioner. Sometimes owners or curators are indifferent to fine weapons merely because they may be humble or unexceptional in appearance. Typically, the swords displayed in collections are those deemed most attractive, but these often are inferior weapons compared to plainer and unadorned swords made as functional, no-frills weapons.
On the other hand, noting whether a specimen was originally gilded in some manner or had various metals inlaid in its blade or hilt is worthwhile as acknowledgement of aesthetic quality and achievements of craftsmanship. Whether or not a blade is ornate and highly decorated can sometimes be a clue as to whether it was produced by a simple swordsmith or a master artisan, and whether it was a custom sidearm for a skilled fighter or intended for placement in an armoury, to be used by a common soldier. Inscriptions or maker's marks on blades can also be telling about the weapon's maker, owner, time or place of origin (though historically both makers and regions were frequently faked). Such marks are often not immediately visible to the naked eye. Sometimes turning the sword in the light can reveal decorative elements hidden on the blade or in the fuller.
Additional Observations and Measurements
In general, you should note how a specimen compares to others of that kind you may have handled. Does it seem familiar or different? How so? How does it compare to the better modern reproductions and replicas you have examined? Lastly, how has handling any single sword specimen affected what you believe about historical swordplay or fencing techniques? In examining authentic swords you will certainly discover major differences between antiques and modern replicas. The vast majority of manufacturers today know their products are not as good as the originals nor made in the same way, but aren't about to say so.
If you have an extended amount of time with an antique sword, taking careful measurements is also valuable. Begin with its weight and overall length then the proportional blade and hilt length followed by the blade's own length and width as well as thickness at obvious divisions. Notice any subtle changes in cross-sectional thickness as you do and look along the flat for any sign of blade fractures. Record the point of balance in the interest of technical detail, but don't embarrass yourself by trying to evaluate the balance of a specimen simply by balancing it flat on the edge of your fingers. Such a test has real little practical value since a weapon's balance is tested pragmatically through practice with the weapon.
Today we can readily handle the wares of perhaps fewer than a dozen competent modern manufactures of Medieval and Renaissance-style swords, and few of those manufacturers actually forge and temper their own blades. But, when you examine a historical sword you hold the work of an individual expert swordsmith and an individual expert cutler (hilt-maker). Remember that it is a tool handmade long ago by one human being for another. The mystique, history, heritage, and art all come from what is now in your hand. Think about this as you appraise it as a weapon, as an aesthetically valuable handcraft, as a tangible piece of history, and as what was once high-technology.
Swords were designed in accordance with certain design principles, but they were personal creations nonetheless and there are no objective criteria for evaluating them. So don't hesitate to be subjective and form an opinion about a weapon, even if it disagrees with that of the owner or curator. Never insult a piece, however, as owners or curators may interpret such comments as personal disrespect. Also keep in mind that if the sword you examine was a real weapon then it was made by and for men who knew a lot more than you do about the how and why of putting it to use.
Historical weapons have been around long before you and will be around long after you. Despite their sturdiness, they are rare and valuable items that need care. As they briefly pass through your hands, keep that in mind as you contemplate their dreadful yet noble purpose as weapons.
About the Author
John Clements is one of America's leading instructors and foremost practitioner-researchers of Renaissance fencing. He has practiced the subject since 1980, researched and taught on the subject in six countries, and is director of ARMA, the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts. He is the author of Renaissance Swordsmanship and Medieval Swordsmanship, both from Paladin Press. He writes and teaches on the craft full-time.
All photographs were provided by the author and are copyrighted by the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts.