Albion Armorers Next Generation Jarl Sword
A hands-on review by Patrick Kelly
The history of the sword has given us many designs that are unique, and readily associated with a particular time, place, and culture. Even people who are unfamiliar with the subject will recognize a Scottish basket-hilt, a musketeer's rapier, or the Japanese samurai's katana. One of the most distinctive sword types extant has come to us from the period commonly called the Viking Age. This is a period recognized by scholars as being roughly from 750 A.D. to 1100 A.D. This was an evolutional period between the migration era and what we have come to know as the Middle Ages. The Viking Age saw the transition from composite hilts constructed of non-ferrous metals, and organic materials, to far stronger hilts fashioned from iron. The change from pattern-welded blades to homogenous blades, or those made from one type of steel, also occurred during this period. At the beginning of the Viking Age swords featured a pattern-welded blade that was mounted on a complex and relatively fragile hilt. These swords were exclusive to Chieftains and the great warriors in their service. The hilts were elaborately mounted with precious stones set in gold, and other lavish embellishments, that perhaps contained religious significance. By the end of the age these beautifully constructed, but ungainly, swords had been replaced by swords with better blades and stronger hilts. The point-heavy blades of the great migration gave way to sleeker tapered blades that featured improved handling characteristics. The gaudy and fragile hilts were replaced with ones made of stronger iron. Inlays of bronze, copper, and silver had replaced the golden carvings and embellishments. These forms of decoration were both striking and far more durable than those they replaced. By the close of the Viking Age sword designs that we associate with the medieval knight were in use. The sword had evolved from the status symbol of the elite into a true warrior's weapon.
It was once popular to call this period the "Dark Ages". It was widely assumed that this time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Middle Ages was one of uncultured barbarism. While this was indeed a period of widespread war and violence it was also a time of rich cultural development. In recent decades archeological discoveries have yielded works in metal, textiles, and architecture that clearly show the supposed dark times to be just as diverse as anything before, or after it. Just as the age that spawned it is complex, so is the Viking sword.
As with most other things, the Viking sword is a seemingly simple, yet complex, subject. Slight variations lead to a huge variety in terms of shape and volume. The term "Viking" is a descriptor used to denote a wide variety of people from the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Like the warriors who used them Viking swords display the same variety. Fortunately for sword enthusiasts this mass of style has been categorized into several useful typologies. The preeminent typology concerning the Viking sword was written in 1919, in Oslo Norway, by Dr. Jan Petersen. Petersen concerned himself mainly with variations in hilt design and style, believing that Viking sword blade design did not deviate enough to warrant comment. Never the less, Petersen's study is exhaustive enough that everything written since is based upon it. In 1927 R.E.M. Wheeler published his own typology in England. Wheeler's work is really a condensing of Petersen's 26-member typology into a more streamlined 9-member group. Wheeler used examples found in the British Isles to formulate his system. In 1991 Alfred Geibig published a study, which focuses on sword types, and material, found in western Germany. The one important feature that sets Geibig apart from his peers is his blade typology. Geibig created a typology of Viking blade design based on the features of length and profile taper, as well as fuller and point design. While these various works include and omit different specimens based on their nationality and local, they have been discussed, and beautifully illustrated, in the book Swords of the Viking Age by Ian Peirce.
In 2003 the Wisconsin-based company of Albion Armorers introduced a new group of swords called the Next Generation Line. Albion's intention was to provide the sword community with a product that was more historically accurate, in both design and construction, than anything else on the production market. See our hands-on review of Albion's Baron Sword for further details on this process. The first three Viking designs in the Next Generation line were well received. However, these models, the Vinland, Clontarf, and the Gotland, feature pommels that are investment cast in a single piece. These swords lack the two-piece pommel construction that is so characteristic of Viking design. From the beginning Albion had always intended to introduce swords that featured this type of historically accurate construction into the Next Generation Line. The Jarl was the first one of this group produced, and is the subject of this review.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Albion Armorers of Wisconsin.
The Jarl is based on several swords that date from the tenth century, late in the Viking Age. The most famous of these is a sword that is housed in the British Museum in London. This sword is possibly the most recognizable survivor from the Viking Age. Photographs of it have been featured in nearly every book dealing with Viking arms. (Shown on pages 77-79 in Swords of the Viking Age, as well as pg. 26, X.8, of Oakeshott's Records of the Medieval Sword.) This excellent sword was found in the River Witham opposite Monks Abbey, Lincoln, England in October 1848. One needs to look no further than this outstanding sword to find the Jarl's inspiration. The Jarl shares the Witham sword's sleek lines and bold proportions. The hilt design of the Jarl is a variation of Petersen's Type S, as well as Wheeler's Type 6.
While being a late Viking Age design the Jarl's pommel features the lobed design that is so familiar to Viking enthusiasts. The Type S pommel is dominated by a large central lobe, which is flanked by several smaller lobes. This is a common feature on earlier pommel designs, and is retained on the Type S. The Jarl's hilt is not a pure Type S, but is instead a variation due to its curved upper and lower guards. These curved guards are a predominant feature of Anglo-Saxon swords of the period, and since several swords of this type have been found in England this may possibly be seen as a local influence on Nordic design.
The Jarl's blade design is categorized as a Type 4 in the Geibig typology. This type is found from the mid-tenth century through the mid-eleventh century. The blade features a moderate taper with a fuller that runs the length of the blade, and follows the same degree of taper as the blade's profile. Type 4 blades tend to be shorter, and narrower, than their earlier counterparts. In this sense the Jarl is again a variation instead of a pure example, since it is larger than the standard Type 4. This should not be seen as a point of contention since the swords on which the Jarl is based are larger than the norm, for the type. This was an intentional choice on the part of the Albion Staff, and the sword's designer, noted sword smith Peter Johnsson, and in my opinion is a wise one. The bold proportions of the Jarl make for an impressive sword.
Fit and Finish
The Jarl is a visually striking sword, and a key feature of this is the sword's pommel. The vast majority of Viking swords on the production market feature pommels that are of one-piece construction. These pommels will typically be cast, or ground to shape, with the details of a two-piece pommel being incorporated into the surface. The end result is usually neither pleasing nor satisfying. The Jarl's pommel is of historically accurate construction, consisting of a separate pommel cap that is secured to the upper guard by two rivets. One of the best features of the pommel, as well as one of the most attractive, is the silver wire accents. This feature consists of strands of twisted wire that have been laid, in pairs, between the pommel lobes. The wire strands have been twisted in opposite directions from one another. This results in a very pleasing herringbone effect. The look is completed by a strand of wire that runs horizontally between the juncture of the upper guard and pommel. This wire is of slightly larger gauge than the rest and provides a nice little bit of contrast. All of the wire is cleanly inset and tight. The rivet heads on the underside of the upper guard are cleanly peened and finished.
The sword's grip is of Albion's typical construction. The grip has been fashioned from two halves of stabilized birch that has been hollowed out to accept the blade's tang. A central cord riser is then added to the grip for visual detail, and as an aid in gripping. Finally, the grip is covered with thin leather that is glued into place. The completed assembly results in a finished grip that is well proportioned and aesthetically pleasing. The Jarl's lower guard is a simple curved design, which features a cross section that tapers inwards from the grip towards the blade. The guard is tightly fitted to the blade's shoulder by means of a cleanly executed slot in its lower face. There is no perceptible movement in any of the hilt components. Everything is tight and secure. Given Albion's method of hilt construction it should remain so throughout the life of the sword.
The blade is cleanly machined and very nicely finished. The fuller's profile is sharp and crisp, with no wandering or drifting of its outer edges. The blade features an edge geometry that is acute yet substantial enough to give good service. This edge would have been more than sufficient against the mail byrnies and wooden shields in use during the tenth century. The Jarl's blade would have done well against the lightly armored warriors of the Viking Age. Albion's Jason Dingledine is responsible for the blade's finishing, and he's done an excellent job of it. The more practice Jason gets the better he becomes. All of the sword's steel components have been finished with Albion's signature satin finish. This is a finish that is very attractive and practical at the same time. For practitioners this is an ideal finish, as it is very easily touched up by the use of a little grey Scotchbrite and oil. There is certainly nothing to complain about in the Jarl's finish.
While cutting with the Jarl I utilized both the typical "hammer" style grip, as well as the "Viking" method of palming the sword's pommel. I found that both methods gave satisfactory, though very different, results. When using the hammer grip very powerful chopping blows were possible. This is a technique that would have been effective in the close press of a shield wall, where broad movements aren't possible. When palming the pommel longer range slashing cuts were the norms. I used the Jarl in conjunction with a Viking pattern shield during these exercises, and I found that the palming method allowed for a longer reach while still maintaining cover behind one's shield.
Previously I had preferred Viking swords with blades that don't feature quite as much profile taper. The broad surfaces of the Geibig Types 2 and 3 were more to my liking. I chose the Jarl primarily for its hilt design, which is my standout favorite among the Viking types. After spending time with the Jarl I have changed my preferences in blade types. I found the Jarl to be lively yet powerful. The Geibig Type 4 is now my favorite blade design of the Viking Age.
The Jarl is the third sword that I have received from the Next Generation Line. Albion Armorers continues to break new ground in the field of production swords. Recently they raised the bar with the introduction of the Regent, the first production sword to feature an accurately hollow-ground blade. The Albion/Peter Johnsson collaboration has again set a new standard with the Jarl. For the first time it is possible to own a production sword that features the historically accurate details of hilt construction, pommel construction, and blade design. Viking arms have always been of particular interest to me. Consequently, over the years I have owned more than a few Viking replicas, both custom and production. Simply put, the Jarl is the best one yet.
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.
Photographer: Patrick Kelly