A Resource for Historic Arms and Armour Collectors
The Albion Mark Peter Johnsson
Museum Collection Brescia Spadona
A hands-on review by Patrick Kelly, with comments from Chad Arnow
At the dawn of the 21st century our world is still full of many myths and misconceptions. One of these is that the medieval sword was a cumbersome and clumsy weapon, and that the techniques designed for its use were equally as crude. The modern mind still imagines the medieval warrior as a hulking brute who defeated like opponents with weapons and methods that were simplistic and primitive. Fortunately for enthusiasts of the European sword, modern research has shown that this is far from the truth. There are in fact many surviving manuscripts that were written by medieval masters of arms that clearly illustrate this point. While these writings may seem obtuse and cryptic to the modern mind, they are in fact highly complex and developed instruction manuals that clearly define the use of medieval arms. The study and translation of these texts provides the proof that the medieval sword was a highly evolved weapon. They will also show us that the methods used in its deployment were just as dynamic as any that have come before or since.
The Italian Master, Fiore dei Liberi, wrote one of these treatises in 1409. Known as the Flos Duellatorum, this manuscript illustrates a method of combat that is as complex as any other martial art. Within his work Fiore lays down a system that is complete with wrestling, knife fighting, longsword use, and a plethora of other combative systems. The illustrations presented within this medieval fight manual show us swords that are of hand-and-a-half proportions, with acutely pointed blades. Swords of this type feature a design that is well suited for both the cut and the thrust. The Brescia Spadona is a modern recreation of just such a sword, and is the focus of this review.
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. 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 Espée de Guerre ("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.
Several years ago Albion Armorers of New Glarus Wisconsin made a bold move by introducing a new line of swords. Albion's intention was to not only create a high quality production sword but also to take the process one step further. These new swords would not just represent a given type of sword; they would also accurately recreate a specific historic example still in existence. The decision was made to work in conjunction with noted swordsmith and author Peter Johnsson. When coupled with his knowledge of the medieval sword, Peter's meticulous research allows the craftsmen at Albion to recreate an original antique with a high level of accuracy. This line of swords has appropriately been named the Peter Johnsson Museum Collection line. Even though it was not the first sword in the Museum Collection to enter full production, the Brescia Spadona was the first one to be put into development.
The introduction of this sword was delayed for an extended period due to many complications that arose during its pre-production phase. Albion's commitment to "getting it right" led to quite a few headaches among the staff; however, their frustration has paid dividends to the modern enthusiast. The original sword is now housed in the Museo Civico L. Mazolli, Brescia Italy. This sword dates from the mid-15th century, and features a blade that was manufactured in southern Germany in the famous production center of Passau. This blade was then exported to Italy, where an Italian cutler mounted it on a hilt of the latest fashion. If nothing else this sword stands as an example of the cosmopolitan trade and commerce that existed in the medieval world. Peter spent the better part of a day conducting detailed research of the original. This included taking numerous measurements of specific points on the sword as well the creation of a detailed scale drawing. Due to wear from use and age, a certain amount of supposition must be used during this process; however, Albion has brought Peter's detailed research on this sword to life in the form of a recreation that is as accurate as is humanly possible. This sword also represents something of a conundrum for fans of the late Ewart Oakeshott's sword typology. The Brescia possesses features that allow it to be included as either a Type XVIa or a Type XVIIIa. As with many medieval swords, the Brescia is best considered as a hybrid design in regards to Oakeshott's typology.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Albion Armorers of Wisconsin.
Fit and Finish
By the mid-15th century the medieval longsword had reached the pinnacle of its development. Armor had reached a level of effectiveness that rendered the earlier styles of longsword obsolete. A sword was needed that could deliver a decisive thrust yet still deliver an effective cutting blow. Swords maintained an acute point, but an emphasis on cutting that had been neglected in the designs of the previous century returned. This is shown in the broader cutting surfaces that are evident in the longswords of the 15th century. The Brescia Spadona is an excellent example of this trend. The Brescia's blade features an acute point that is designed for the thrusting techniques outlined in the period manuals. This point flows into a broad cutting surface that is well defined. The blade features a broad secondary bevel that is cleanly executed, and adds visual detail. This bevel is a feature of the original, and is necessary to maintain the appropriate combination of edge geometry, strength, and mass distribution. Albion's head Cutler Eric McHugh commented on the blade's design, "There is a small but noticeable secondary bevel on the Brescia blade. It is a wide secondary bevel, too. So this is what you are seeing. This is one of the features of the original. In photos of the original, you can just make it out when the light plays on the blade, but that is the hint that it is there." The blade also exhibits a cleanly executed narrow fuller that runs nearly half the blade length. At the fuller's end, the blade transitions into a shallow diamond cross-section. This cross-section combines with the secondary bevels at the tip, which results in a point that is properly reinforced for use against armored targets.
The guard and pommel are investment cast from mild steel. The casting is very cleanly executed and no pits were to be found on any of the three examples I have seen thus far. Both components feature a faceted cross-section that is very attractive, and very functional in regards to the pommel. The facets allow for several sharp angles on the pommel's end. In medieval combat, the hilt was often considered to be a weapon in its own right. This pommel would be capable of delivering incapacitating strikes to an opponent. The design of these components lends a very elegant appearance to an otherwise Spartan design.
The steel components are finished in Albion's standard satin finish that is not only attractive but easily maintained as well. The grip features a core of stabilized birch that is fitted in two sections that have been hollowed out to accept the blade's tang. This core is then fitted with a central cord riser and covered with black leather. The seam of the leather grip covering was nearly invisible on all examples of this sword that I have examined. One aspect of Albion's production method that sets their product apart from the rest of the market is their hilt construction. This feature has been covered in detail in our hands-on review of Albion's Baron Sword.
The Brescia is simply exceptional in its handling characteristics. When using drills outlined in Guy Windsor's book The Swordsman's Companion, I found that the sword flowed effortlessly from guard to attack, and back again. The sword possesses a pivot point that is very close to the blade's tip. This allows the Brescia to follow the point extremely well during a thrust. Last year I had the opportunity to cut with this sword's prototype while using tatami mats as a cutting medium. It showed good performance on this softer cutting medium, with cuts being effectively executed and no undue vibration being felt.
At a recent Albion Collector's Guild party, Chad Arnow was able to cut with the Brescia as well and made the following observations: "This sword handles every bit as nicely as it looks. It is quick and agile. The sword's proportions (weight, balance, mass distribution) contribute to a sword that is responsive in dry handling and in cutting of light targets like pool noodles. The grip is long, certainly long enough to accommodate both of my rather large hands. The Brescia handles quite well with two hands, whether both hands are placed on the grip or if the off-hand slides down to grip the pommel. It also handles well with one hand, and is relatively easy to get up to speed when held that way. Whether used one-handed or two, it tracked easily into and out of the cut. Proper edge alignment and tip control were easy to achieve. While quick and agile, it may lack a little of the "pop," or authority in the cut, that some other swords of this size possess. I'm sure it would work well in unarmoured combat, or against lightly armoured foes; I'm not sure how well it would do against armour. The blade is stiff enough with its complex cross-section for thrusting."
I concur with Chad's observation in regards to the Brescia's thrusting ability. The blade features a shallow diamond cross-section that gives it a certain amount of flexibility that would be counterproductive in armored combat. Many other swords of the later Middle Ages feature blades with a more acute diamond or hollow-ground cross-section. Both of these designs will result in a blade that is much more rigid than the Brescia's, and thereby better suited for armored combat. It is my opinion that the Brescia may be an example of a sword that was designed more for civilian dueling than for strict military use. Regardless of its intended application, the Brescia Spadona is a sword that features outstanding handling characteristics. Any modern day martial artist will find much pleasure in the ownership and use of this sword.
The road to fruition on this particular sword was an exercise in frustration for the team at Albion Armorers. Many of the production aspects of Albion's Museum and Next Generation Lines were overcome and refined during the development of this sword. We should not underestimate the time and effort needed to truly recreate an existing antique. In the end their efforts have been well worth the expense. The result is a sword that is highly desirable, both as a collectable and as a martial tool.
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.
Special thanks go to Chad Arnow and Eric Mchugh for their input on the Brescia Spadona.
Photographer: Chad Arnow