A Resource for Historic Arms and Armour Collectors
Cold Steel Smallsword
A hands-on review by Bill Grandy
Dueling in the 18th century was a gentleman's activity. A man of honor and wealth was expected to uphold his standing in society, and his honor was his life. Should his honor be challenged, a gentleman was expected to defend it with steel or face shame.
Because only men of status would have been involved in dueling, this meant that the sword needed to reflect that status. The smallsword was the common dueling weapon, and it became not merely a side arm, but a part of a man's daily wardrobe. It grew to be a reflection of the man's place in society, and therefore these civilian weapons were often decorated, sometimes quite ostentatiously, to show the wearer's wealth and place in the upper crust. It was not uncommon for a wealthy man to own multiple swords that were decorated in many different fashions, some of which may have even been intended purely for show rather than martial use. Despite that, there is no doubt that many men trained to use these weapons lethally, and many men died by these blades on the field of honor.
Cold Steel is a company most famous for their knives, though in more recent years they have branched out into swords. They have received generally positive reviews on their Japanese line of swords, which prompted my curiosity about their European line. The piece reviewed here is an example of a typical smallsword of the 18th century. I do not know if this is intended to replicate a specific original piece, but it still captures the generic aesthetic look and feel of this style of sword.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Cold Steel of California.
This particular piece has its plusses and minuses in terms of handling. It is well-balanced, and tip control is good. Disengages and beats are easy, and parry-riposte actions are reasonably quick. In fact, all basic smallsword actions are generally easily done with this sword. The blade has no edge, and uses a triangular-cross sectioned blade to make a very stiff weapon dedicated purely to the thrust.
The major problem with the design of this sword is the weight. Typical smallswords with this type of thrust-only blade tend to be very lightweight, usually under a pound. This sword, despite being well-balanced, is still too heavy, mostly due to the blade being much more robust than necessary. While it is feasible that a smallsword duelist may have to deal with an opponent armed with a heavier cutting blade (and in fact Sir William Hope's New Method of Fencing, a smallsword manual from the 18th century, shows one illustration of a smallsword fencer against someone wielding a lochaber axe), the fencer would more likely rely on avoiding contact rather than making hard parries, making a heavier, robust blade such as this a bit of an overkill.
The hilt is slightly large as well. While not overly unwieldy, the grip is slightly too long, and this can get in the way of some low-line parries, particularly when the hand is in pronation, as the pommel gets in the way of the wrist. For the casual collector, this probably will not be a large issue, though it is certainly notable for someone who wants an accurately-handling weapon of this type. The finger rings are a little large as well, as on typical originals the finger rings are very small, too small for the finger to pass through with the type of grip one would use with a rapier. The proper smallsword grip involves pinching the ricasso with the fingers, rather than wrapping the forefinger around. This sword was obviously designed with the rapier grip in mind, as it only feels natural with the forefinger completely through the loop and around the base of the blade. The proportions seem about right, despite being slightly too big overall, which is a shame, because otherwise it handles well.
Fit and Finish
In addition, there are areas where epoxy appears to have seeped out. The wire-wrapped grip is definitely held in place by this epoxy, and even where the blade meets the guard some epoxy has leaked out. While it is impossible to dismount the sword to see the tang without destroying it, I suspect Cold Steel did not merely use epoxy to hold the sword together, but rather used epoxy as a back up.
The sword comes with a hard, leather-wrapped scabbard. The scabbard is well-made and the sword fits snugly in it. It will not slide out easily under gravity alone, but does come out with an easy pull of the hand. The scabbard has metal decorations which appear to be cast and chrome-plated. While for the most part attractive, they still suffer from the modern-made look of the sword fittings. The pieces also are made of a thick gauge of metal, and therefore appear much larger than the scabbard profile.
The negative details of both the sword and scabbard are for the most part minor, as the overall look is still attractive. It would do well for a person wanting a reasonable reproduction but not demanding total historical accuracy.
Cold Steel has created a decent smallsword that could have been made better had they simply kept the same proportions but sized it down to match original antiques. The sword handles well enough, and for the most part is generally good looking. At its suggested retail price of $429.99 US, I would say that it is only adequate for its price point. That said, many vendors of Cold Steel products seem to sell for a variety of prices, and I have seen Web sites that sell this for much less. If found within the $350-$375 price range, I would say it actually is a good purchase for someone who wants a decent and sturdy smallsword.
About the Author
Bill Grandy is an instructor of Historical European Swordsmanship and sport fencing at the Virginia Academy of Fencing. He has held a strong passion (obsession?) for swords and swordsmanship for as long as he can remember. He admits that this passion comes from a youth spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, but he'll only admit that if there are no girls around.
Photographer: Bill Grandy<