Arms & Armor Fechterspiel Sword
A hands-on review by Bill Grandy
Contrary to the depictions of popular culture, the typical Medieval and Renaissance swordsman was not a wandering loner who developed his technique and skill on his own. Like all martial arts, European sword arts were developed and practiced in groups with various traditions and schools. The Germanic areas had famous civilian fencing societies, such as the Federfechter and the Marxbrüder (the Brotherhood of St. Mark). Students would gather under the roof of their fechtschule (fencing school) and train, oftentimes readying themselves for a fechterspiel, meaning "assault of arms".
Various tools were used in training. Wooden swords, referred to as wasters, were a cheap and readily available source. Because wood does not handle exactly like a realistic sharpened piece of steel, blunt steel swords were also common to gain a more realistic feel. Most blunt steel swords, however, tend to be heftier than typical sharp swords simply due to the extra mass required in making the edges wider, and therefore, safer. Period fencers clearly realized this, and illustrations from many fencing treatises show fencers practicing with longsword "foils". These training swords, of which a few still exist in museums, have thick blades that are narrow in profile; in order to maintain the structural integrity near the hilt, most have a wide ricasso.
Arms & Armor years ago developed a sword based on the period fencing weapons seen in German artwork and fencing manuscripts, which they call their Fechtbuch sword. Craig Johnson of Arms & Armor had contacted me some time ago, though, about making a different version of their standard Fechtbuch sword. The Fechtbuch was an excellent training blunt, but was a little bit overbuilt because there are many groups that require the extra mass, whether because the sword will see heavy abuse in stage productions or because the sword will be making direct strikes at armour. Craig wanted to make a slightly lighter version geared more towards western martial artists who specifically practice unarmoured personal combat, or what is referred to in the German tradition as blossfechten. I was sent a prototype of this sword to test out.
The original prototype handled beautifully, but after further discussions with Craig I had a few minor things that I told him I'd personally like to see in a trainer, including having a more flexible blade for thrusting. Craig took my advice into consideration and modified the design, and sent me the revised prototype. It only took me seconds to call up Craig and tell him to charge my credit card. The Fechterspiel sword was everything I could want in a trainer.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Arms & Armor of Minnesota.
There is no such thing as a perfect training sword. Every form of training tool will always have some element of artificiality to it. A training sword that will see extensive bouting cannot be made with the same design philosophy as a sharp sword because they have two opposite purposes: One is designed with safety in mind and one is designed with lethal intention in mind. It is very common for blunt swords to be heavier than sharp ones because of the extra mass, though higher-end swords, such as this Fechterspiel sword, manage to overcome this problem.
The edge is wide to help dampen serious damage when combined with controlled power and safety gear, but one can never emphasize enough that absolute control must be exercised at all times when training. The sword may be designed with safety in mind, but I absolutely could injure or kill a person with this as easily as I could with a baseball bat. That said, provided you and your partner have been training properly for some time and safety concerns have been addressed, this sword is far safer than a sword that is simply unsharpened. The distal taper of the blade does cause it to become less than two millimeters towards the tip, which may be a concern for certain groups which require wider edges. I have found it to be just fine, but it is something that needs to be kept in mind before purchasing. Regardless, the Fechterspiel is safer than many other training blunts due to the combination of excellent balance and controllability combined with edges that are still quite wide.
The blade is also reasonably flexible, far more so than most trainers I've used, and this makes it quite safe in the thrust when combined with a rubber archery blunt over the wide tip. It is not quite as flexible as typical rapier simulators, but it is quite ideal for a longsword. It is stiff enough that I have no problems executing any historically accurate technique, and in fact many sharp swords with thinner cross-sections are at least as flexible as this sword.
Some of my students already owned the Arms & Armor Fechtbuch sword, and upon handling this Fechterspiel, talked to Arms & Armor about acquiring one. Craig Johnson actually took their normal Fechtbuch swords and modified them into the newer Fechterspiel for a very reasonable price, allowing them to have a sword better suited to their studies without having to pay the full price. This was quite a bonus.
In testing these swords out against each other, they have proven to be incredibly tough. While filing out nicks and burrs are a part of life when using practice swords, these have been surprisingly resistant considering the amount of use they've seen. The guards nick a little easier than the blade, but not excessively, and they do not see as much contact as the blade does anyway. After many months of hard use my sword has not shown the slightest bit of loosening, which is rare for training swords I've used. Most need to be tightened after only a few months. The Fechterspiel has remained rock solid.
I must say, for a training tool, this is an incredible looking one. The hilt fittings are smooth and exhibit the subtlety of antique swords. The guard flares out towards the tips with a graceful hexagonal cross-section that can be found on originals as well. The pommel is secured by a pommel nut that can be loosened should maintenance need to be done on the sword, and it is very tightly secured.
The two main aesthetic differences between this trainer and the Arms & Armor Fechtbuch sword are that this version has a subtly waisted grip, and also shows a slightly more detailed ricasso. The ricasso, which flares out from the guard, is the same thickness in the center as the blade, but then steps down in a tasteful and stylish manner. This is not only for looks, but for keeping the mass near the hilt down in order to get the sword to balance correctly.
Arms & Armor makes two grades of finish for this sword: The standard, higher polish version, and the trainer version which has a lower finish, and the cast parts are not as polished. The average practitioner would probably opt for the trainer version as it is cheaper and will become banged up easily, but groups geared more towards performing in front of an audience may prefer the standard version. Reenactors and those who do historical sword demos, for instance, may want to make sure their swords do not look modern to the audience, and therefore will want to avoid the fittings looking like they were cast.
The sales literature from Arms & Armor's Web page says, "Combining quality and historical accuracy, this sword is an excellent piece for the longsword practitioner looking for a period style and handling." That really about sums up this sword. It combines the class and elegance of a 15th century fechtschule with the maneuverability and feel of an original weapon, all while keeping safety and training in mind as the main function. Quite simply, I love this sword. It is very hard for me to imagine finding a training weapon that I ended up liking much more than this one. It is not inexpensive, but if you are a serious practitioner of the longsword, this is a trainer that you really need to consider in the long run.
About the Author
Bill Grandy is an instructor of Historical European Swordsmanship and sport fencing at the Virginia Academy of Fencing. He has held a strong passion (obsession?) for swords and swordsmanship for as long as he can remember. He admits that this passion comes from a youth spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, but he'll only admit that if there are no girls around.
The sword shown in the photographs has been used extensively for martial arts practice and shows signs of wear and patination.
Photographer: Bill Grandy