Hanwei / CAS Iberia Charlemagne Saber
A hands-on review by Chad Arnow
The figure of Charles the Great, known to history as Charlemagne, looms large in the latter years of the first millennium AD. The son of Pepin the Short and grandson of Charles Martel (the hammer), he was King of the Franks from 768 until his death in 814, and added the title of King of Lombardy through his campaigns. During that time, he expanded his familial kingdom so that upon his death the Frankish Empire occupied the vast majority of Western Europe from present-day northern Spain, through most of France, much of Italy, Germany and Saxony. An ardent Christian, he tirelessly defended the papacy, poured money into its coffers, and thought of his kingdom as the new incarnation of the old Roman Empire. He was given the title Emperor on Christmas Day in 800 AD, becoming the first in a long line of Holy Roman Emperors.
Two fine weapons attributed to Charlemagne survive to this day. The more widely studied by most students of European arms and armour resides in the Louvre Museum. It is a cruciform-hilted sword with a Brazil nut pommel, and guard ending in beast's heads. Originally housed in the monastery at St. Denis with other famous symbols of French royalty, it was used in the coronation ceremony of French monarchs. Though it is a striking sword visually, it is unlikely to have been in its current configuration during Charlemagne's day, if any of it even existed in the 8th and 9th centuries at all. The hilt components are dated by the Louvre to the 10th to 13th centuries.
The other sword can be dated to more conclusively to a period closer to that in which Charlemagne lived. This saber with definite Eastern influences is housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna with other regalia of the Holy Roman Empire. Dated to the late 9th or early 10th century, it was though to either be spoil from Charlemagne's Avarsi campaign or a gift from Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad. During the imperial coronation, the emperor was girded with this sword.
The richly decorated saber and scabbard survive in remarkable, almost pristine, condition apart from the jeweled bands added in the 15th century as repairs to stabilize the grip. The wooden grip is covered in a ray or shark skin, while the hilt is decorated with intricate designs in gold. The fuller on the blade is inlaid with decorated gilt copper and the surviving scabbard is mounted in gold.
Paul Chen's Hanwei Forge in Dalian, China was first introduced to the sword market through CAS Iberia as a maker of Japanese-styled swords. The CAS Iberia / Hanwei katana line has since been expanded and other forms of Eastern weaponry have been added to the lineup. They have also moved into western weapons and armour as well, beginning with swords like their pattern-welded Viking "Godfred" sword and now boast cruciform swords of many kinds, rapiers, basket-hilts, impact weapons, and armour among their wide array of offerings.
The sword reviewed here is the final prototype of one of their more recently-introduced offerings: a reproduction of the saber attributed to Charlemagne, housed in Vienna and part of the imperial coronation regalia. This is not Hanwei's first sword inspired by a significant historic sword, as they've reproduced Cromwell's "mortuary" sword, the sword attributed to Edward III and other pieces. It may, however, be the most complicated and detailed of these reproductions. I suspect it was quite a challenge to reproduce and shows the time put into studying the original.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by CAS Iberia / Hanwei of China.
Since the review sword is a prototype and was slated to be displayed at several upcoming shows, I was not able to cut with it. In handling, though, it's very interesting. Though based on what has been a ceremonial weapon for centuries, the reproduction feels appropriately balanced for a horseman's sword. The shape of the grip really emphasizes this.
Its point of balance and weight distribution carries the blade easily through swings and the wielder is rewarded with an interesting whooshing sound when the edge is aligned properly. I'm told hi (fullers) on katana produce the same kind of effect. I could easily see this sword dealing out effective slashing blows from horseback. I'm not sure how well it would fare against mail, as it seems to be designed for facing lightly armoured opponents.
Fit and Finish
Two interlaced bands link the globular pommel with the decorated area near the guard. You can clearly see that these bands are separate from the rest of the hilt on the reproduction. On the original, they are either part of the rest of the hilt or the seams are much less obvious. The exposed part of the grip is covered in ray skin, providing a secure gripping surface. Each quillon is a separate piece, like the original. They overlap at the center and are secured with a pin. The pin passes all the way through the hilt and is peened on the opposite side. Similar pins secure the decorated plate next to the guard and the pommel itself. The gold plating throughout the piece is satin in its finish, presenting a rich look without it being overly shiny or gaudy. Real ray skin wraps the wooden core where it is exposed.
The saber's blade is fairly complex. The first eleven inches of the blade (its base) features a thick spine that tapers from .24 inches to .18 inches. At that point it thins out and sweeps up to a false edge that runs for the rest of the blade's length. A fuller runs most of the length of the blade, tapering in width along the blade's length. Where the spine changes to the false edge the fuller is interrupted, rising up and actually becoming thicker than the blade before resuming its run toward the point. While I'm not exactly sure of the purpose of this feature, it is present on the original and is visually interesting. The entire fuller is decorated on both sides with plated gold, showing running foliage and stylized beasts. Probably the most obvious departure from the original happens at the blade's tip. Instead of a flattened cross-section, a central ridge makes the tip diamond in section. The blade's edge is sharp and the false edge could easily be sharpened.
The included scabbard has a wood core. It is covered with leather and mounted with more cast, gold-plated brass. Like the hilt, it is richly detailed, but suffers from a regularity of pattern and slightly washed out appearance that make it look ever so slightly modern. Still, it's an impressive amount of detail. Two tabs stick out from the scabbard; on the back of these are pinned two loops for securing it to a belt and suspension. The leather-wrapped portion has a single seam running up the front edge. It appears to be glued and the edges butted together. In looking at photographs of this sword, the reproduction's scabbard seems to be shorter than the original's though it fits properly. The sword fits snugly into the scabbard for the last inch or so and doesn't really rattle inside the scabbard, a pretty impressive feat considering the complex cross-section of the blade.
Its suggested retail price is $759 US at the time of this writing, but most CAS Iberia / Hanwei retailers charge a good deal less than the suggested retail price. Selling at this price point has previously not been common for Hanwei's European offerings and this piece may signal their intent to expand more into this range with detailed, well-researched, historically-inspired pieces. Given the amount of detail and the extensive gold plating, this piece should prove to be a good value and a unique addition to most collections.
While comments about its durability in cutting will have to wait for others to write, it appears on the surface to be well-constructed. In dry handling it also seems to have appropriate characteristics for its type and intended usage.
This is an impressively detailed piece that should sell for a fairly reasonable price. It is also the only production replica of this important symbol of the Holy Roman Empire and its first Emperor. It includes all of the major features of the original and makes efforts to set show the character of a period piece. While some elements give away its modern manufacture, it is a great homage to Charlemagne and an impressive piece in its own right.
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.
Vienna, the Kunsthistorische Museum, by Manfred Leithe-Jasper
My thanks go to CAS Iberia/Hanwei for loaning us this piece for review. I'd also like to Blake Pogue of CAS Iberia for arranging this and answering my many questions.
Photographer: Chad Arnow