Sunday, August 28, 2005

How To Buy a Good Sword

Well, I've gotten a lot of responses (some mail, some comments and some blog posts) on my Swords blog entry. I never realized so many people liked swords, but a lot of folks seem unaware of what it takes to make a good sword. The thing is, Kit Rae swords are decorative swords - they look good, nothing more. A good Bamboo sword can quite effectively beat a Kit Rae sword for the simple reason that Kit Rae swords are not live (i.e. battle ready). If you are looking to buy a good sword (a real sword), here is what you would need to know. Know Your Sword Know the parts of your sword - you would not buy a car without knowing how many people it would seat or what mileage it would give, would you? Similarly, make sure that you know the parts, functionality, features, limitations and advantages of the kind of sword you are looking at. For instance, the following diagram shows the parts of a Kendo Shinai.

Material and Quality of Material I could write an entire treatise on this, but make sure that the sword is made of good material. When I mean material, I refer to it as an all-encompassing theme - the kind of metal, the metallurgy of the metal, quality of the metal/alloy, forging, post and pre manufacture treatments (like heating, curing), weight, balance and the like.
And stainless steel is not good material, it is brittle - when a 1 lb highcarbon rapier meets a 5 lb stailness steel Kit Rae, the latter will most unceremoniously break into two (or more) pieces, if you are lucky.
Also make sure that the sword has a full tang - i.e., all the parts are forged together as part of the sword, not welded as an afterthought. When you're in combat, the last thing you want is your blade flying off the guard, hilt or pommel (or something to that effect). The Highlander Sword Shopper's Guide has excellent articles on Determining Sword Quality and on Understanding Steel.
And remember - quality comes at a cost. Functionality and Aesthetics The sword you buy will depend entirely on what you would be using it for. My Kit Rae swords hang over the fireplace, but I practice using my Katana with other Kenshi (swordsmen). So, if you're looking for wall decors, it does not really matter - but if you are looking to use them, then your choice must be quite carefully made. For instance, I'd recommend serious Kenshi to look at the Japanese Swords FAQ that talks about Buying a Good Japanese Sword. And I'd also strongly recommend buying a pair of Bokkens - these are bamboo/wooden practice swords, and a good Bokken can beat a bad blade.

Size, Use and Balance If you are looking for a blade to be displayed on the mantlepiece, this is hardly an issue. But if you are going to be using your blade in live combat, you will need to consider all of the above. The size of the sword is dependent on your size - if someone who's 6'4 used a shortsword, it would look like a dagger on him. Or if someone who weighs 110 pounds tried using a 5 pound broadsword, it would be amusing at best and pitiable at worst. The next thing, once again, is use. If you are buying a blade for live combat use, what kind of live combat are you looking at? If you are the member of SCA and have medieval reenactments, your use is quite different than from someone who is buying a sword for Kendo or Iaido competitions. And finally, the issue of balance. This is something that most people completely ignore, but it's something that comes to haunt you later on. You need to feel that you are part of the sword. You and the sword should be one, and that will not happen if you do not have good balance. Depending on the sword, you should have a balance of the sword a little away from the guard. For instance, Horace Luong shows the balance of a good Tai-Chi sword below, which is about 5 cm from the guard.

Links and Resources Stephen Marsh has an excellent page on buying or forging swords.
I would also recommend looking at reliable manufacturers of swords, such as Kris Cutlery for buying good blades. While not particularly pleasing in an aesthetic sense, their blades are extremely functional and rugged. I would also recommend looking at forums such as the Sword Forum for information on swords.
Swords of Honor is another website with a good deal of information if you are looking to buy swords.

And finally, a disclaimer. Swords are blades made out of metal. Back in the day, these were designed purely with the intent to kill and maim. If you are dumb enough to stick one in places where it should not be, you're a moron and I'm in no way responsible for your foolish actions.
Unless you know what you're doing (and even if you knew what you are doing), nothing beats being careful and using your common sense. If something untoward happens, we can all attribute it to Darwin (and your stupidity, ofcourse).