A Resource for Historic Arms and Armour Collectors
Albion Armorers Next Generation Baron Sword
A hands-on review by Patrick Kelly, with comments from Peter Johnsson and Chad Arnow
The world is an ever changing place. Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of arms development. Ever since the first caveman slew his neighbor with a rock, mankind has been looking for more efficient ways to bring harm to his fellows. The period we know as the Middle Ages was no different. (I wonder if people knew that they were living in the "middle" back then.) This period saw a constant change and evolution in arms and armor. The standard form of armor during this age was mail (erroneously known today as "chain mail"). Mail had already been in use for centuries and was well established. By the mid-13th century the medieval knight's body had become fully encased in mail. Full length sleeves with mittens had been added to the Hauberk, as well as an integral hood known as a Coif. Mail hose called Chausses now protected the knight's legs.
For several centuries the single handed sword had served the warrior as his standard sidearm, and would continue to do so throughout the Middle Ages. However, by the mid-13th century it was felt that a larger and more powerful sword was needed to deal with the improving body defenses then in use. The result was a sword that would become a battlefield mainstay, in one form or another, and would remain so throughout the Middle Ages, and into the early renaissance. In its early form this sword was referred to as Espee de Guerrel ("Grete war sword"), as well as many other names which ably described both its size and purpose. These swords were what we today call a "Hand and a Half" sword, or rather swords that can be utilized for either one-handed or two-handed use.
While similar to their single-handed brothers in overall design, they featured a much longer two-handed grip, as well as a correspondingly longer blade. Average weights appear to have ranged from 3.5 to 4 pounds with blade lengths of 35 to 39 inches. These were not swords designed for riding to the county faire, or for collecting the local taxes. These medieval war swords were meant to deliver large cleaving blows in the heat of battle. The late Ewart Oakeshott gave these swords two different classifications in his well-known typology; those of XIIa and XIIIa. While both shared the previously mentioned overall dimensions, the XIIIa sported a blade which featured very little taper in the blade's profile, as well as a spatulate point. The type XIIa featured a blade that, while still broad at the base, tapered to a much more acute point. An example of the later, as manufactured by Albion Armorers, is the subject of this review.
In mid-2003 a decision was made to take the company's line in a new direction. While the then extant line (now known as the First Generation) had been generally well received by the arms collecting community, it was felt that the line didn't quite fit with Albion's ultimate goal. With noted Swedish swordsmith Peter Johnsson working as the company's foremost designer and researcher it was decided to offer a line of swords with more historical authenticity. Details such as blade geometry, overall proportion, and hilt construction were addressed. Exhaustive hands-on research was conducted by Peter Johnsson and Albion's Master Cutler Eric McHugh. Many existing original swords were examined and measured, with the intent of incorporating the information into a new product line. Shortly thereafter, Albion introduced this Next Generation line of swords. To say that this new line has been well received would be an understatement.
Details have been incorporated into blade design that have not been commonly seen in the production field. Gone is the method of using one generic blade for a broad range of swords, with mix and match hilt components. Individual blade types are designed from the ground up in terms of geometry, mass, proportion, and strength. A longsword type from the high Middle Ages will have a dramatically different blade than one from the late Middle Ages.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Albion Armorers of Wisconsin.
One of the key differences in the Next Generation line concerns hilt construction. Many, if not most, modern production replica swords use a means of hilt securement which utilizes a threaded tang, a cold peened tang, or a combination of both to secure the entire hilt. The hilt components are slipped onto the blade's tang, and are then held in place by a screw-on pommel, pommel nut, or a combination of pommel nut and a cold peened tang. These methods can produce a serviceable sword but are far from ideal, or historically accurate for many of the types of swords being manufactured. This method places a more than ideal level of stress on the end of the tang, and the hilt components as well.
It can be said that Albion has gone backward instead of forward on this issue. Gone are the slip-on components and threaded pommels. Hilts are now assembled in the time proven historic method. Guard and pommel are tightly wedged onto the tang. The underside of both components is then peened against the tang, thereby forming a permanent assembly. The tang end is then heated and hot peened against the top of the pommel or a separate rivet block. Once this has been accomplished, the grip, in the form of two hollowed out sections, is then mounted onto the tang. The grip is then covered with cord and leather. The result is a hilt comprised of components that are self supporting. Every component bears its own share of the stresses involved in maintaining the assembly. This process results in a hilt assembly that should remain tight throughout the life of the sword. You may be able to loosen it but you'd destroy the sword in the process. When these historic methods are combined with the modern manufacturing methods of CNC machining and investment casting the result is a sword of excellent quality and construction, yet is still affordable.
The Baron's designer Peter Johnsson has this to say concerning the sword:
When starting to work on the design on this one there were a few things that were in focus. The big war-sword of Type XIIa is an absolutely classic type. I wanted the Baron to make justice to the best of those XIIa blades that I've experienced.The Baron was one of the first swords completed and produced for the Next Generation line. It's proven to be a very good way to begin.
The goal for the Baron was to represent a large-sized weapon with powerful and quick handling and an immediate and compelling visual impact. I have seen and handled quite a few of these in museum storerooms and they have left strong impressions with me. Perhaps the most important aspect is how they combine imposing size with very pleasant handling characteristics.
The dimensions of the blade changes in a very dynamic way from the base to the point: from thick and sturdy to crisp and relatively thin, while still retaining a working stiffness. When seeing well preserved examples up close it is possible to see how economical and effective the material is used to achieve an effective combination of blade and edge geometry, strength, and agile balance. These were important factors I wanted the Baron to exhibit.
A more subtle but still crucial aspect is the use of harmonic proportions in the design. The practical application of harmonic proportions is a design tool that has been used by artisans, artists, and craftsmen since the dawn of history. It is fascinating to see how these principles are implemented in the craft of sword-smiths and cutlers as well. The most striking and beautiful examples of the craft through the ages often follow these principles in many aspects: linear dimensions and volumes as well as dynamic properties. The Baron is a study of the use of harmonic proportions considering both the physical and visual properties of the sword.
The big war-sword of the high Middle Ages is something that I have always found fascinating. The originals are close to that archetypical sword we all imagine when we hear the word "sword". I was happy to get the opportunity to start working with one of these weapons early on in the new Next Generation line.
Fit and Finish
Chad Arnow, an owner of the Albion Baron sword, makes these observations:
The small fit and finish and small detail work on this sword were unlike any other production-level sword I've ever owned. The blade is shaped very smoothly, showing no ripples or waves in its surface. The fuller is very well-executed, and its end transitions smoothly into the rest of the blade. The blade's edges have no discernable extra bevel. The octagonal cross-section of the guard is very crisply done, and shows the kind of three dimensional properties that are commonly seen on period originals. The grip is quite comfortable and secure, with the cord and leather wrapping. The pommel and cross are very cleanly cast, showing far fewer casting flaws than many other production swords. The pommel tapers in thickness, being thicker toward the hand. This is a nice aesthetic touch, and also should help in terms of mass distribution. The pommel on mine is not quite symmetrical, giving a cast hilt piece a very hand-made look. This adds to the overall feel of a sword much older than it is.Handling Characteristics
When first examining the Baron one is struck by the overall size of the piece. This is a large sword. This impression of size leads to quite a surprise when the sword is first placed into hand. The sword's nearly four pound weight is belied by its balance. The Baron exhibits outstanding handling qualities. The blade features a rather radical distal taper. The blade's base is almost a quarter of an inch thick yet dramatically tapers to the point. The last quarter of the blade seems like a large heavy-duty carving knife. However, this radical taper does not result in a blade that is by any means weak. The rather broad blade still maintains enough mass in its cross-section so that a good strong cutting edge is maintained. When combined with a pronounced profile taper, this distal taper results in a distribution of mass that makes for a very swift handling sword. While the Baron handles well when used one-handed it really excels when used in a two-handed fashion. Given that this type of sword was designed to deliver large cleaving and slashing blows, this two-handed method was obviously preferred. While the blade does possess a serviceable point its lenticular cross-section does not allow for the kind of rigidity necessary for a dedicated thrusting blade. Cutting is the obvious priority for the Baron. Cutting tatami mats revealed no surprises with the Baron. All cuts were cleanly and easily executed. The sword tracks well in the cut, and doesn't seem to be too demanding in strike placement. Cuts delivered on either side of the blade's center of percussion were easily executed with no discernable vibration. While the Baron could be used in the later styles of longsword play that are currently very popular, it really won't give best service in this regard, a later period design should be chosen for these pursuits. It will, however, give outstanding service in the earlier style of swordplay for which it was designed.
Chad Arnow adds these comments regarding his Baron:
This sword, while very large, does not handle sluggishly at all. In fact, it is much livelier and quicker in the hands than some swords of similar dimension that weigh less. Gripped with two hands, it flows well through short chops, as well as long sweeping cuts. The grip is very comfortable for gloved or bare hands, and the sword handles equally well whether the cross is "fingered" or not. There is plenty of room on the grip for my two rather large hands. This sword would definitely be quite a cleaver when used in battle. This sword could be used one-handed, but for this reviewer and his limited cutting experience, the sword seemed much slower when used this way.Conclusion
Albion's Baron is a sword which possesses an austere beauty which, when combined with the subtle details of shape, mass, and proportion, results in the recreation of an absolutely classic design from the high Middle Ages. This type of early war-sword has always been one of my favorites. Consequently, I have owned many production samples over the last two and a half decades. Every one of those previously owned swords lacked something in aesthetics, construction, performance, or all of the above. Not so with the Baron. This sword combines the qualities of appearance and performance that have already caused many to take notice of Albion's Next Generation line. Whether a collector, or martial artist who desires their very own "Grete war sword", one need look no further than the Baron by Albion Armorers.
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.
I want to extend my special thanks to Peter Johnsson and Chad Arnow for their comments and observations.
Photographer: Chad Arnow