The Evolution and Evaluation of the Modern Replica
An article by Patrick Kelly
Years ago buying a replica sword was a much simpler process than it is today. Back in the dark ages of sword collecting we suffered from a dearth of options. There were perhaps three or four companies offering decorative swords for sale. If a functional and reasonably accurate sword was desired that list was cut in half. The few of us who were lucky enough to know a sword maker knew exactly that, a single smith.
Times Have Changed
What a change we have seen in the last few years! The Internet has caused an explosion in our community, in both collectors and makers. The Internet has made it possible for a sword collector in North America to communicate with a maker on the European continent. We are now faced with a dizzying array of makers and products. Overall this is a great thing. Someone is now making almost any sword design from the annals of history. Ahistorical designs of a fantastical nature are also being manufactured at an unprecedented rate. In short, there's something for everyone, and someone to make it. While this plethora of options can be a real asset it can also be quite confusing to the first time buyer. Hopefully the following material will be of some help to the first time sword buyer, in terms of what to look for and what to expect in a given price niche.
Why the Replica?
It is now possible to obtain a reasonably accurate facsimile of a given design, an exact one if the pocketbook is deep enough. A collector may not be able to own the "real thing" but he can still gain a fair impression of the design features and capabilities of the originals through the use of the modern replica. There is also the issue of the martial artist to consider. Within the last few years we have seen a great surge in the study and recreation of the European sword arts. Western swordsmanship is becoming an increasingly popular field of study, and the need for equipment is following in hand. No practitioner in his right mind will want to use a genuine medieval antique during training. The equipment used in these pursuits will see hard use, thus the need for the modern replica in this arena. Several companies are now offering rebated training swords, which, in fact, replicate the swords used for this very purpose in ages past. Finally, we must consider the simple emotional need to own a sword that is bright, sharp, and "alive", instead of a dead piece of the past.
The business of arms and armor replication can trace its roots back to the Victorian age. During this period the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and others, were wildly popular. The plays of William Shakespeare were still performed with regularity and were not considered quite the curiosity that they are today, in most circles. These other activities led to resurgence in interest in all things medieval, particularly the collecting of period arms. The only problem was that everyone wanted to play but there weren't enough slots on the team. This led to the creation of a cottage industry, which specialized in the restoration, and replication of antique arms.
A myriad of replica arms were manufactured during this period, many of which were quite excellent. Just as many, if not more, were rather shoddy by today's standards. Most of the latter will readily be recognized by an experienced eye due to their rather simplistic, and crudely executed engraving. Many Victorian replicas were also bathed in a mild acid bath in an attempt to create a look of agedness. Once again, to the trained eye these qualities are obvious. The Victorian collector also seemed to be more concerned with appearance than with function. Far too many replicas of this period feature no heat treatment what so ever.
Many weapons displayed in museums today are, in fact, not true antiques at all. Weapons could be put together upon demand. If an arms dealer had an antique blade and pommel it was a standard practice to manufacture a guard and grip to go with it. As long as the sword looked right most customers went away happy. There were, however, some truly excellent reproductions made during the Victorian age.
Artisans such as Ernst Schmidt manufactured reproductions that rival anything made before or since. Unfortunately, while these arms may have been made with great care and skill they have become somewhat of a bane to modern collectors. Unscrupulous dealers such as the infamous Louis Marcy were well known for having replica arms manufactured, which were then sold to collectors as being original. This has led to quite a bit of confusion and skepticism on the part of modern collectors. The sword of Edward III, which surfaced in Spain in 1893, is a classic example of an original and quite historic sword, which until recently fell victim to this skepticism.
This sword had once been in the possession of Louis Marcy and was dismissed for decades as being a forgery because of this. It was only through the efforts of modern forensic study, at the behest of the late Ewart Oakeshott, that this sword was finally proven to be authentic. Who knows how many genuine antiques are considered forgeries even today because of these past associations. I wonder how many of our modern made swords will one day, hundreds of years from now, be looked on as the real thing?
Getting What You Pay For
Before purchasing a modern-made sword the buyer first has to make a decision as to priorities. What is the intended purpose of the sword? How much is the buyer willing to spend? Is appearance or functionality the highest priority? Is an historical pattern needed or is something with a bit of fantastical flair desired? For purposes of simplification I will break down the modern replica into price points. This should not be taken as a hard and fast rule since there will always be exceptions. Some makers will charge less for a certain level of quality and some will charge more. Hopefully the following information will be helpful as a broad guideline.
$50-$200 Price Range
Swords in this range will generally be decorative and nonfunctional in nature. Many examples will have furniture (pommel and guard) that is cast from a zinc alloy. Unfortunately this material is unsuitable from a functional standpoint. Parts manufactured from zinc, commonly known as pot metal, are very brittle. Any sharp corner or angle will result in stress points. These parts will crack and fall apart if serious use is attempted. On the positive side, parts are easily manufactured using this process. It is also possible to cast a part from zinc that features considerable visual detail, and visual detail is the main priority when dealing with decorative swords.
More expensive decorative swords will feature a higher level of finish, and will range from gaudy to austere in their appearance. Nearly all of the swords in this category will use blades made of 420J2 stainless steel. The reasons for this are those of economics and practicality. 420J2 features low carbon content, as well as high chromium content, enough so that it cannot be properly heat-treated. Consequently, 420J2 is very soft steel and is easily machined. These qualities are not necessarily desirable in a functional sword; however, they are advantageous in the manufacture of decorative swords.
Furniture will, once again, be manufactured from zinc castings. These components will, however, feature more attractive finishes, often being plated with gold, silver, or bronze. Plastic or glass "jewels" may be inset into the guard or pommel in an attempt to give the piece a bit of fantasy flair. Grips will often be covered with genuine leather but will usually feature cores of hollow plastic. Most blades will also feature some form of decoration. On these more expensive models it will usually be applied through acid, or photographic etching. This etching will be much more precise and clean than the stampings of the cheaper examples. Some are quite attractive. Many of the most recent decorative offerings are some of the more austere. They aren't nearly as gaudy as some others and have a much more authentic look to them.
The vast majority of decorative swords will be very blade heavy. The blades will be machined from relatively thick bar stock, with no considerations given towards distal or profile tapering. Most will feature a far more substantial tang than the cheaper models, however, these will still be of insufficient strength and design. While these would be negative factors in a functional sword they are of little consideration in a decorative piece. Decorative swords are derided by many collectors as being shoddy and unauthentic. From the perspective of function this is true. On the other hand, many people do not require, or desire, a functional sword. If an example is intended to serve as office or home décor, or as an item of costume apparel, then there are many alternatives and prices to choose from.
$200-$500 Price Range
Many of these offerings are manufactured in countries such as India, the Philippines, China, and Italy. Brass is a common furniture material in this price range. While certainly a big improvement over zinc, brass is still far too soft to be considered optimal. Brass components will sustain damage much more easily and loose integrity through use. Some lower range maker's are now using cast steel in place of brass, which can only be seen as an improvement.
Grips will either be made from a type of hardwood which is indigenous to the country of manufacture, or the more expensive offerings will have grips covered in leather or bound with wire. Care should be exercised in the care and maintenance of hardwood grips in this range. Many of these swords will not feature adequate mechanical qualities. As a consequence, heavy vibration may be encountered during use. This can lead to cracks and splits in the grip. Another common feature encountered is the threaded tang, i.e. the pommel will be screwed directly onto the tang as a means of securing the assembly. This method of securement can lead to over-tightening, which will also result in the aforementioned cracking. As a consequence the hardwood grip should be oiled on a regular basis to prevent it from drying out. The pommel should also be tightened only as much as is necessary in order to prevent cracking.
One issue that needs further discussion is that of the threaded tang. As already stated, many replicas in this price range use this method of assembly, primarily for ease of production. While this method does achieve the basic purpose of holding the various components together, it is far from perfect. In many schools of martial study the sword's pommel is grasped during various maneuvers. If the assembly is secured in this fashion the torque administered during use can cause the pommel to twist loose. Another more minor issue is one of aesthetics. Since swords in this range are seldom possessed of good mechanical qualities they will frequently work loose and require tightening. If the pommel is of a wheel design it can be difficult and bothersome when trying to both tighten, and properly align the pommel. If the assembly is tight enough the pommel will often be misaligned. If the pommel is aligned the assembly may wind up being too loose. This can result in the need to use washers of some type in the assembly.
Replicas in the upper end of this range will usually show improvements in these areas. The overall fit and finish will be far better than the cheaper offerings. Furniture will be more cleanly and precisely cast. Fittings will often be chromed so that a smoother appearance is maintained. Swords at this scale may start to show signs of mechanical improvement in terms of profile and distal tapers, harmonic balancing, etc. Heat-treatment, however, may still be a hit or miss affair. Most companies in this niche are mass production affairs. Numbers are the name of the game here and many employees may be paid by piecework, instead of an hourly or weekly wage. As a consequence quality control can be spotty so a physical inspection of the product is always advisable, if possible, prior to purchase. In spite of these issues it is in the upper end of this range that we start to see really functional swords appear. These swords, while still lacking in an aesthetic sense, will feature the use of good steels and heat-treatment, and peened tangs instead of threaded pommels. If threaded tangs are used, the tang will be secured by a lock nut, instead of to the pommel itself. This is a system that provides a good level of structural integrity.
We also see the use of both forging and stock removal in this range. Many of the third world countries, which engage in the sword making industry, will use forging as a means of production. While many collectors see forging as an upper-end process these companies utilize it due to the issues of cheap manual labor as opposed to more expensive machinery. Several midrange companies that utilize stock removal are known for their durable and well heat-treated blades.
As with any other endeavor it is attention to detail that determines the quality of the product, not the processes involved. While the majority of swords in this range will have structural and performance issues, it is possible for the buyer to obtain a reasonably functional sword that will give good service for its intended uses.
It is in this price range that we begin to see significant improvements in both structural integrity and aesthetics. Swords will not be as gaudy or elaborate as their cheaper cousins; however, they will feature a much higher level of mechanical ability. Many companies in this range machine their blades from stock. This results in a cost savings to the customer while maintaining functionality. Blades should feature a consistent level of heat treatment. Edge holding ability and flex should be at least as good as their antique brethren. Hilt components will be either cast or machined. Mild tool steel will generally be the material of choice, however, several companies offer bronze furniture as an option. The threaded tang will largely be left behind, and peening the tang will be the norm. If threading is encountered it will be as a means of holding the assembly tight during peening. Components will be more tightly fitted and loosening should not be a frequent occurrence in this range.
If replicating originals, these swords also typically feature many of the attributes that are found in antiques. Aspects such as distal and profile taper should be present if they existed in the historical context. Most replicas in this range will not, however, be direct copies due to issues of affordability. If the original featured a hollow ground blade chances are the replica will not. If the sword's furniture was originally plated with gold or silver, most likely these components will simply be made of steel or bronze.
Leather covered grips will feature leather that has been shrunk to fit instead of merely glued on. Options such as cord binding underneath the leather will be found as an additional feature. Extras, in the form of blued or plated hilt components may be available as an extra cost option. Many later period designs, which feature compound hilt construction, will fall into this range. These hilts will usually be compromised of cast components that are assembled through modern gas welding. If done properly, this will result in a hilt that is both attractive and structurally sound, while still being affordable.
If companies choose shortcuts working at this price point they will generally be ones that are primarily of aesthetic value. Companies in this range are well aware of their customer base. The primary objective will be to provide the customer with a well-built sword that will not bruise the pocketbook too badly. If the buyer exercises good shopping practices a sword can be obtained that will be both attractive and functional. The end result should be a sword that gives the user a reasonable impression of a given type's historic counterpart.
$1000 and Up Price Range
If aspects such as distal and profile tapers were present in the original then they should likewise be evident in the replica. A sword should possess the right edge geometry for its type. Hilt components should be tightly fitted and loosening should not be an issue. Most one-of-a-kind custom work will fall into this range. If a production sword is being touted as an authentic copy, it should indeed be authentic.
Regardless of issues of authenticity or originality, a sword priced at this end of the spectrum should exhibit an excellent level of fit and finish. Finishes should be evenly applied and free of cosmetic flaws. Small flaws will be evident in any hand-made object, however, large aesthetic or structural flaws should not be accepted. If a collector desires that one special sword it will likely be found in this price range. Special and exotic materials are readily available; only the skill of the maker, and the pocketbook of the customer will dictate the limits of design.
One of the negative aspects of working up where the air is rare will be delivery time. Even production swords in this price range will not be readily available. Due to their cost, companies usually will not keep large amounts of these upper end models in stock. Many of the authentic attributes of sword construction were the natural byproduct of the hand working and forging process. As a consequence, if the sword in question is made using modern machinery, many of these aspects will actually be more difficult to achieve. Likewise, custom sword makers in this range are in high demand by serious collectors. Delivery times will often span years instead of months. However, once the buyer has his new sword in hand he will find that the wait was well justified. Many swords found in this higher price bracket are the epitome of the modern sword maker's art. If a true replica is desired it will be found here.
As I stated earlier the above criteria should only be considered a broad guideline. There will be companies, and individual makers, in every niche that will fall above or below the line in terms of cost and quality. Hopefully this information will enable the beginning collector to avoid making the same costly mistakes made by many of us back in the dark ages. We are truly experiencing a renaissance in the sword makers art. May it outlive all of us.
About the Author
Patrick is a State Trooper serving with the Kansas Highway Patrol. He has been fascinated with edged weapons, particularly the medieval sword, since early childhood. Not only is Patrick thankful for any opportunity to indulge in his favorite hobby, he is also blessed with a wife who tolerates a house full of sharp pointy things.