A Resource for Historic Arms and Armour Collectors

Armour Class Cup and Ring Basket-hilt
A hands-on review by Chad Arnow

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One of the most recognizable forms of the sword, arguably, is the Scottish basket-hilt. The Scots basket-hilt, of course, was not the only European sword with a metal, hand-enclosing basket, but its allure and variety continues to make it popular. The origins of this type of hilt can be traced to the 16th century, and they remained popular for many centuries afterward.

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Antique Sword, Second Half of the 17th Century

As these swords developed, the baskets became more complicated and more highly decorated. Early basket-hilts, though, are more restrained in their decoration. One surviving example rests in the National Museum of Scotland. Dated to the second half of the seventeenth, it is a good example of the earlier, more simplistic form. The knuckle, side, and rear guards are simple flattened bars of steel. Completely lacking are the plates between the side and rear guards. Instead of the elaborate file-work and piercings of its later cousins, the saltire bars are decorated with simple lines and a pattern known as the cup-and-ring. This style of decoration is made up of a central dot (known as a cup) surrounded by one or more concentric rings, looking to modern minds like a target. The cup-and-ring pattern is found on rock art in Northern England, Ireland, and Scotland dating back to prehistoric times. The pattern came back into popularity, being used on basket-hilts like this one, and as decoration on sporran mounts.

Glasgow, Scotland-based Armour Class produces a wide range of swords, covering the dark ages through the 18th century, though they are perhaps best known for their complex-hilted swords. With seven basket-hilts in their lineup, covering early to late period examples, their Cup and Ring Basket-hilt is neither the most simplistic nor the most complex basket-hilted sword they recreate. Though they have a model lineup, they are not considered a "production" sword maker, but are usually thought of as a semi-production or semi-custom shop.

This sword was purchased from Art Elwell's A Work of Art several years ago, after he had imported a few of their basket-hilts to resell. Since its purchase, I have emailed Iain and Allen several times asking various questions. They have always responded promptly and helpfully. I have no doubts they would do the same for others.
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Measurements and Specifications:
Weight:2 pounds, 15.5 ounces
Overall length:39 1/4 inches
Blade length:33 1/4 inches
Blade width:1 1/2 inches at base
Grip and pommel length:5 3/4 inches
Basket width:4 3/4 inches
Point of Balance:3 3/8 inches from guard
Center of Percussion:~22 1/2 inches from guard

Replica created by Armour Class of Scotland.

Handling Characteristics
Many reproduction basket-hilts are oversized. This one, however, is a great fit for my big hand while being historically accurate in size. The combination of ray skin and wire provides a very secure grip.

This sword surprised me the first time I cut with it. Of the swords I've used for cutting, this is the only one that cut well from the first swing; all the others required some time to get used to swinging them. I believe this to be a combination of several factors. Firstly, the basket makes it very easy to align the edge. Secondly, the blade did come very sharp from the maker. Thirdly, the tip is well-suited for cutting: it is pretty thin in cross-section. Lastly, the balance makes the sword very handy.

Fit and Finish
The entire hilt is quite well made. Many non-custom basket-hilt makers cast all or parts of their baskets for consistency and to reduce costs. This basket is so cleanly done, in fact, that I had asked Allan Clark of Armour Class if was cast. Allan was kind enough to detail the process for me: "There are no castings in the basket-hilt you have. The pattern is cut into 4mm sheet steel and all the edges are ground to shape, filed and sanded. The Saltire lines are ground in with a Dremel type of tool, the cup and ring marks are hot forged in with a die I turned on the lathe (small Colchester Student lathe). Areas of the hilt are heated yellow hot and hammered over profiled dollies to bring the basket into shape. Once this has been finalized, some of the areas are welded together and the sword catchers are welded in place. The whole hilt is then re-ground to shape, filed and sanded to the final finish." All of this labor-intensive work results in a hilt with no noticeable welds or grind marks. There are a few small spots on the saltire bars that seem to be the result of the heating and hammering to shape that occurs. They do not detract from the appearance at all, though. The pommel is well-formed and screwed securely onto the tang, so securely in fact, that I was told I would have to weld a bar onto the pommel to give enough leverage to unscrew it. The basket itself is lined with a padded maroon cloth liner that covers about half of the basket's inside.

The grip is made of Scottish Oak. Its core has a hole drilled through the center; the tang is then heated and the grip burned down over it for a secure fit. The grip is covered with ray skin, over-wrapped with copper wire. The wire is in three separate strands: the outer strands are straight, while the center wire is twisted. The ray skin and copper wraps are both tightly executed and attractive.

The blade is also well done overall. Armour Class makes their blades with an antique grinder whose original purpose was to make and sharpen guillotine blades. The base of the blade sports a thickened rectangular section known as a ricasso. The two short fullers begin where the ricasso ends. The fullers themselves are a little rough in some places, though they are mostly well-finished. The fact that such narrow areas are generally well finished is actually pretty impressive. The blade is also well-shaped and very sharp.

With a price of 385 (around $720 USD at the time of this writing), it is more expensive than mass-produced replicas, but far less expensive than quality custom basket-hilts. This is a very appropriate price point, and this sword is worth every penny. It is head and shoulders above the production basket-hilts currently being retailed. It handles well and is well-made in every way. For anyone who wants more out of a basket-hilt than what is available on the production market, and who wants to spend less than $1000 USD, this Armour Class sword is a great choice.

About the Author
Chad Arnow is a classical musician from the greater Cincinnati area and has had an interest in military history for many years. Though his collecting tends to focus on European weapons and armour of the High Middle Ages, he enjoys swords, knives and armour from many eras.

Photographer: Chad Arnow

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