As I begin writing, it is April 9th, and I am sitting on pins and needles, waiting for a package to arrive. It’s something I commissioned back in January, and I just can’t wait for it.
It’s my new sword, a functional war sword that I’ve since then named “Nightfire.”
(For those who just had the Diablo II version of a war sword pop into your heads, let me just clear this up. A Medieval war sword has a cutting blade between 36” and 40” long, and a handle between 6” and 8”. The guard is usually a standard crossguard, and the pommel tends to be a wheel pommel of some sort. Nightfire is a variation; it has a 38” blade and a 9.5” grip. And yes, I am shamelessly showing off here…)
If you haven’t already guessed, swords are one of my passions. It’s been that way ever since Corey Keeble in the Royal Ontario Museum put a seven hundred year-old broadsword in my hands back when I was in high school. It was light, wieldy, and I could FEEL the history on it. I’ve never regretted the road it sent me down.
I don’t think I’m the only one who just loves swords. Take a cross-section of Diablo characters, and I’ll bet you that most of them are carrying swords around. Same with Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate, and any other role-playing game you’d like to mention. We all love swords. There’s a nobility about them, a feeling that they are somehow better than any other weapon. No surprise there; they’ve had a mystique like that since they were invented around 3,500 years ago.
Unfortunately, when it comes to owning one of these wonderful objects yourself, the first thing you discover is that the modern sword market is more “buyer beware” than a room full of Battle.net cheaters. There are more catch-phrases than you can shake a stick at, most of which are either absolutely meaningless, or have come to be that way.
So, my dear readers, here is Garwulf’s quick guide to sword buying, a helping hand through the market by a character whose breath has killed a thousand merchants, and scared another thousand straight. We’re going to toss all those catch-phrases out the window and listen to them scream as they fall fifteen stories. “Battle-ready” is meaningless, and God only knows what “museum quality” means.
(Actually, I should throw in the standard disclaimer for those who actually take my advice. Any sword is a lethal weapon, and should be treated with great care and respect. So, playing Conan with your brand new blade is a BAD idea…)
First of all, steel. Carbon steel or spring steel is good. Stainless steel, on the other hand, is not your friend. What makes stainless steel resistant to rust is an element called Chromium, which also weakens the molecular bonds in the steel. So, that nice stainless steel sword may look wonderful and shiny, but it won’t hold up to any usage (so making it into a stage prop is out of the question).
(Actually, steel by definition is iron with carbon added, but the distinction is important. Just avoid stainless steel and you should be fine.)
Next comes the tempering, or heat treatment. A good sword is first hardened by being heated until it is extremely hot and then quenched. This makes it great at holding an edge, but very brittle. Then the blade must be tempered; it is repeatedly heated slightly and quenched, softening the blade until a balance is struck between hardness and durability. A good sword is finely tempered; a bad sword will wrap itself around a tree if you try hitting one. Finding out the hard way is just downright embarrassing (trust me on this one).
Then you’ve got to look out for the tang. The tang is the part of the blade that runs through the hilt. The good swords have a full tang; the bad ones have what is called a “rat-tail” tang. This basically means that the sword is held onto the hilt by a metal rod about ? an inch thick, or smaller. It’s designed to break if anybody tries to play “Conan.”
At this point, to properly judge a sword, you have to hold it in your hands. It’s time to talk about the grip, balance, and weight.
The grip is really important. If you’re getting a sword for reenactment, for example, you’re going to be doing a lot of handling. Therefore, a chain grip may look really nice, but it is murder on the hands. Smooth wood or leather is much better. In the end, though, it comes down to what you are comfortable with; after all, you’re the one who is going to have to hold it. Take careful note of the construction of the hilt as well; an all-steel construction is good for reenactment swords, while a brass guard and pommel might not stand up to the stresses of cutting or swordplay.
Weight and balance are the final things that make a good sword. Forget the Dungeons & Dragons equipment lists, they’re all wrong. Good swords are light and wieldy. If a single-handed broadsword weighs more than three pounds, there is something very wrong (Nightfire comes in at under 3.5 lbs, and the blade alone is over three feet long). The balance should make the blade come alive in your hands, enticing you to swing it and scare the willies out of the sword vendor (but please, for the love of God, don’t give in to temptation).
And, last but not least, you’ll have to read between the lines of the lingo. “Battle-ready” is meaningless, but if a sword is marked for the “Steel-to-Steel Challenge,” or some variation thereof, that means it is designed for live steel combat. Pay close attention to the construction of the sword, but ignore the rhetoric. There are sites out there that will try to list stainless steel swords as functional blades, when they are anything but. The most important thing is to use your head when choosing a sword. Think carefully about what you want it for, do your research, and you’ll be fine.
(If you can’t handle the sword in advance, there are a couple of places online that have sword reviews. The best two websites are Sword Forum International, which also has a wealth of information about swords and their construction, and NetSword.)
And now, if you’ll excuse me, Nightfire is calling me.
Next installment: The Lawsuits of April, in which the author attempts to make some sense of the new developments in the Bnetd case.