Old Dominion Forge Clamshell Hanger
A hands-on review by Sean A. Flynt
The professionalization of European militaries in the 18th century brought a certain degree of standardization to the short military swords known variously as hangers, cutlasses, dussacks or falchions, but non-standard swords of this type remained in use as well. Plain or fancy, the non-standard weapons often featured one or two iron plates to protect the hand (often of scallop shell form), a wood or horn grip and a simple pommel cap. Even in their crudest homespun forms, these are efficient and attractive weapons.
For over a decade and for up to 30 hours per week in addition to a full-time job, Kyle Willyard of Old Dominion Forge has dedicated himself to recreating 18th century arms and accoutrements, especially those of colonial North America. The Bloomfield, Indiana, craftsman's concern for the authenticity of his work has led him even to the extreme step of building and equipping a colonial-style forge and workshop. Without exception, the work shown on his Web site is stunning, whether eating utensils, pewter wares, fine "cuttoes" or workaday edged weapons.
"As a person very interested in living history and knives and swords," Willyard told me in a recent interview, "I wanted something better that was not available in the general market." So, he started making pieces for himself and soon realized that others shared his enthusiasm for individuality, quality and historical accuracy.
Willyard said he gets his ideas for edged weapons from the classic reference books on the subject, from antique arms auctions and, whenever possible, from personal examination of antique weapons. "There is nothing like actually feeling it and being able to look at a piece from every angle," he said.
The knife forms Willyard chooses for reproduction are particularly beautiful, and their execution appears to be outstanding. I've never handled any of those knives but I recently had a chance to examine an Old Dominion Forge hanger as it passed through my hands in transit from one lucky collector to another.
Although Willyard concentrates almost exclusively on 18th century arms and accoutrements, he delved into the late 17th century for this weapon. On the other hand, the type certainly could have been used well into the 18th century. "My feeling is that the earlier swords were of a better quality and would certainly have continued to have been used and prized by their owners," Willyard observed. This weapon certainly seems to be of that quality. It is a fine hanger of classic late 17th century/early 18th century form, neither a munitions-grade arm nor the garish martial jewelry of a fop.
The lightly antiqued guard, with symmetrical outside and inside plates of scallop shell form, is made from a single sheet of steel approximately 1/16th inch thick throughout. The knuckle-bow tapers up to the pommel cap, beneath which it is secured. A large escutchion at the midpoint of the knuckle-bow provides additional protection for the hand. The rear quillon flares slightly at its terminus and is scrolled toward the blade. The rest of the hilt consists of a polished horn grip, scalloped-edge ferrule with two incised lines around its circumference, a slightly domed pommel cap decorated to match the ferrule and a mushroom-shaped pommel nut.
Recessed areas of the hilt (incising and areas slightly depressed in forging) are darker than the surrounding steel, giving the piece a truly hand-forged and antique look. The inside of the guard is dark and lightly textured. It is a beautiful complement to the grey finish of the exterior. The maker's mark (a rectangle containing the capital letters ODF) is stamped on the top (or inside) of the rear quillon. The tang of the blade is neatly peened over the pommel nut and finished. The mottled tan and brown horn grip is smooth as glass (yet not slippery) and reflects excellent taste in grip materials and finishing details.
An oval leather washer rests between the hilt and the short, curved blade, which features a uniform width along its length and a single, broad fuller near the back of both flats of the blade. The properly heat-treated blade, like the hilt, is lightly distressed, with a dark grey patina overall and what appear to be scattered pits remaining from the forging of the blade on the lower third of both sides of the blade and especially near the tip. Some collectors wouldn't care for the pitting or the minor irregularities of the blade that arise from hand-forging, but I think these add character and value to the weapon.
Willyard said he didn't model this hanger on any particular original weapon. Rather, he simply incorporated typical features of the period and weapon type and made an educated guess. "There is a cutlass in Neumann's Swords and Blades of the American Revolution that had some of the same features in the ferrule and pommel, with a single shell guard," he said. "I liked the thought of a double shell for the added hand protection, so that is what I decided to do. After I built the sword, the book Boarders Away came out and had some nice examples of double shell guards, so I guess I was on the right track."
When I first handled this weapon, the word that came to mind was elegant. When I showed it to a friend, she immediately commented on how "elegant" it is. Willyard said this effect is intentional and reflects the original weapons that inspired this hanger. "The elegance of this period in swords is what draws me to them," he said. "Swords of a hundred years later were mostly utilitarian in nature and lack the grace and balance that these had. The originals that this sword was patterned after were most likely the personal swords of a ship's captain or an officer."
That would be a British or colonial American captain or officer, judging by the scabbard that accompanies this weapon. Willyard relies on other craftsmen to make scabbards, and this one is both appropriate to the weapon and well-made. It is of heavy black leather with a single stitched seam up its back. Its furniture consists of a British-style brass chape with scalloped edge and two incised lines (echoing the details of the hilt,) and a robust brass throat stud, also of British form. Two fine lines run the length of the scabbard, one near each edge. The scabbard holds the blade solidly, but not too tightly, and would typically be worn in a baldric.
Measurements and Specifications:
Replica created by Old Dominion Forge of Indiana.
This hanger is very comfortable and lively in the hand, but still has a blade presence appropriate for a cutting sword. Its pleasing balance must owe something to the distal taper of the blade, which increases significantly in the lower third of the blade. However the balance was achieved, Willyard clearly considers the handling of the weapon as part of an overall quality standard. "Balance is everything in a sword," he said. "It should be comfortable in your hand. I feel the same way about knives," he added. "I hate a blade that feels like a weight at the end of the handle. I try to give every piece I make a good balance."
Lefties will welcome the symmetry of the guardthe weapon can be used comfortably in either hand without compromising hand protection.
Fit and Finish
Willyard also observed that even workaday swords tend to be more finely finished in the era preceding and overlapping his primary focus. "It seems the cutlasses were made much better in the 17th-early 18th century than later on," he said. "I think there must have been customers more willing to pay for higher quality pieces then. It seems that as the 18th century progressed, that cost became a larger issue."
The light antiquing of this piece is both attractive and convincing. It gives the impression not of an excavated artifact but of a valued sidearm after a few years of campaigning. All components are tight and perfectly fitted.
There aren't many off-the-shelf reproductions of edged weapons of this period, so it's great to find another custom manufacturer dedicated to these forms.
As of this writing (late Winter 2006) the Old Dominion Forge Web site displayed many of Willyard's past sword projects but had no swords listed for sale. ODF knives, on the other hand, were plentiful and listed from a low price of $130 US up to $350 US, with beautiful pieces at every price level. The reported original price of the hanger reviewed here was in the mid-$500s. That should give you some idea what to expect when inquiring at ODF about sword commissions. All the prices seem very reasonable for handmade, beautiful and historically accurate reproductions.
Assuming the rest of Old Dominion Forge's wares match the quality of this piece, living history enthusiasts and other collectors and users of 18th century edged weapons will find few manufacturers more attuned to their specific needs or more able to satisfy them.
About the Author
Sean Flynt is a public relations professional in Birmingham, Alabama. He is interested in the martial culture of all periods and people but focuses on 1450-1650, with special interest in German and Austrian arms and armour.
Photographer: Nathan Robinson