Friday, July 30, 2010

Proper Measure for a Sword

This post is a response to this thread on SFI where the majority of the discussion is now on the proper length a sword should be, with quite a few people asserting that a “proper” blade needs to be longer than we typically see because we are taller (on average) than our medieval counterparts. I'm responding here rather than on SFI because most of those involved over there are Liechtenauer-ists where I am a Fiorist – so my comments are aimed more at the Italian tradition than the German.

First, to get this out of the way – folks in the Middle Ages were not as short as people think. To the average person (including most of those I talk to in my store), “medieval man” was tiny – a good 10-12” shorter than we are today. However, the evidence shows that the difference is more like 2-3”, still a significant variance, but not as crazy as people seem to believe. Here's a good article on the subject.

The first thing we have to do is ask what we are really trying to accomplish. Are we trying to discover what the “Medieval Masters” believed to be the proper measure of a sword? Or are we trying to discover what we believe to be the proper measure of a sword? These may seem like the same question – after all, if we base our beliefs on sword length on our interpretations, then aren't we doing both? Yes and no. Why? Because even the masters can't agree.

Silver describes his ideal one-handed sword as being a yard in length (assuming a modern yard = 36”) plus or minus an inch or two, depending on the person. He then says that his ideal longsword will have the same blade (34-38”) but with a longer handle. It's interesting that these are the dimensions seen on the majority of modern training longswords.

Vadi describes the ideal sword as being proportional to the user, extending from the ground to the armpit and with a hilt as long as your forearm. For myself, at 6', that means a length of 54” and a 14” hilt, which isn't a longsword, it's a true two-hander (spadone, montante, etc.). Indeed, if you look at Vadi's illustrations versus Fiore's, taking into account the somewhat questionable reliability of the illustrations, it is obvious that Vadi's sword is bigger than Fiore's. It is also telling then that Vadi does not include any one-handed or mounted plays whereas Fiore does.

Here is a listing of some modern training swords with their blade and handle lengths:

Arms & Armour
  • Spada di Zogho Blade: 35.75” Handle: 10.75”
  • Fechtbuch Blade: 37.75” Handle: 10.75”
  • Fechterspiel Blade: 37.75” Handle: 10.75”
  • Spadone Blade: 47” Handle: 16”
  • Montante Blade: 45” Handle: 14”

  • Liechtenauer Blade: 36.5” Handle: 11”
  • The Meyer Blade: 36.5” Handle: 11.25”

CAS Hanwei
  • Practical Hand & a Half Blade: 34” Handle: 9.75”
  • Practical Bastard Blade:38” Handle: 11.5”
  • Federschwert Blade: 37” Handle: 14.5”
  • Tinker Longsword Blade: 35” Handle: 12”
  • Tinker Bastard Blade: 33.38” Handle: 9.38”

The key (and on this many of the folks at SFI agree) is that the sword is proportional to the user, the argument is what that proportion should be. And that is where personal preference comes in. As we've seen, not even the master's could agree on what the ideal sword is. And neither should we!

So, does it really matter? Does it really matter if I use a sword with a 38” blade or one with a 36.75” blade? It depends. Yes it is an issue because you want to make sure that you are using an accurate tool for your art (i.e. using a Viking style sword to do Fiore longsword – yeah, not so much). That being said, I think far too many people get caught up in the importance of the tool – that is all a sword is – over the importance of the art. During large classes at Northwest Fencing Academy, it is not unusual for me to use 2 or 3 different swords – we like to match swords (Tinkers to Tinkers, A&A's to A&A's, aluminum to aluminum, etc). In addition, my primary solo trainer is a Purpleheart Armories waster. So while training my sword length varies between 35-38”, with different length handles and different balances. But this is a very good thing because it teaches me to adapt – I do not get caught up in getting a tool to fit my art but in making my art fit the tool. But trust me, even though I firmly believe this, that doesn't stop me from pining away for a beautiful custom longsword trainer to call my own!

A great example of this is a pair of modified shinai that the Academy used to use for free-play. One shinai had about a 36” blade and the other a 34” blade – and boy did it make a difference! We would use the disparate lengths to, in my opinion, our advantage – constantly training with, and against, a shorter or longer sword gave me some of the best free-play lessons I've ever received. Nothing teaches you to work on gauging distance and following your strikes like deceiving your opponent's parry and snapping out a beautiful thrust – that falls 1” too short!

To sum up, whatever sword you want to use for your practice is okay by me, so long as it fits within the parameters of your art (no I.33 with a spadone). Many medieval masters, including Vadi, tell you that, in a judicial duel type situation, you should make sure that the swords used are equal (“sisters”), but I think that in order to be well-rounded students of Armizare (or KdF or whatever) we need to practice with, and against, a variety of weapons. No, excuse me, with and against a variety of tools.


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