Weapons: Re-enactment Blunt Buying

When you start looking to buy a re-enactment blade you should ask yourself two questions:

  1. is it authentic (see typology )
  2. is it good quality and does it feel good for me

This page is to help you answer the second question.

Re-Enactment Sword Metallurgy For (and by) Beginners

One of the first things an experienced re-enactor will tell you when you mention sword-buying is that you must take an experienced member with you to do it. However a Wychwooder may not always have someone experienced with them to help. Rather than providing a list of sword-smiths who are good to buy from, I hope this material will help Wychwooders understand the differences between swordsmiths and swords, and know how to go about assessing the work of new swordsmiths who may appear.

What are you looking For?

This stuff is not about how to pick a good wall hanger, or how to pick a good sharp. This assumes that you are looking for a re-enactment weapon which will be safe.
When you buy a new blade we recommend fighting against a mild steel sword before using it regularly in order to harden it (read on - all will become clear).

You also want it to be authentic- check out our page on typology for details!

The Materials:

Mild Steel

Mild steel is a steel with a low carbon content. It cannot be hardened and tempered in the same way as high carbon steel. It will always be soft. It will tend to bend rather than spring back to its ordinary shape. The edges of a mild steel sword will require regular filing and/or hammering to remove sharp edges and roughness cause by large dents or “burrs” in the edge. Mild steel swords have a short life time, since constant maintenance will wear down the blade. The payoff, such as it is, is that mild swords are relatively cheap, and they can be welded back together if they break.

EN45

EN45 is a manganese spring steel. That is to say, it is a steel with a high carbon content, traces of manganese that effect the metal’s properties, and that it is generally used for springs (such as the suspension springs on old cars).

Untempered EN45 is harder than mild steel, and will not suffer as much from burs or require as much repair and therefore have a longer life.

Tempered EN45. The typical re-enactor’s weapon is made from hardened and tempered EN45. These weapons are made by professional smiths, and their properties depend substantially on the skills and choices made by the smith. Much depends on the hardness to which the blade is tempered. The Rockwell scale is generally used as a measure of this hardness. I believe that at the present date most UK armourers temper to between 52 and 54 on this scale. Harder blades are more likely to suffer from chips and breakage, while softer blades are more likely to bur and require more frequent maintenance. To begin with all tempered swords swill pick up more damage than they will later in their life. This is because of the process of work hardening: every blow compacts the metal on the edge of the sword making it more resistant to future blows. Hardness is largely a matter of taste and choice once you know the properties of different blades, and claims are made for both hard and soft swords.

Tempered CNM

CNM stands for Chrome-Nickle-Moleybnynum. This is also a high carbon steel but with different trace elements. Tempered CNM swords differ from EN45 blades in that they are generally substantially softer when new, but harden more with use. The result is supposed to be a sword blade that is less likely to actually break later on.

Tempered CV

CV stands for Chrome Vanadium, again a high carbon steel but with different trace elements. CV is generally said to be easier for smiths to work will, but initially the blade is more susceptible to damage, and again toughens over time.

But How does all that Help?

Without actually buying a sword and using it for years, it is impossible to be certain about its quality. Even swords from the same smith will differ substantially. The best you can really buying a new sword is pick a smith for his work, in a general sense – the materials he uses, the quality of what he generally makes and, in the case of tempered weapons the hardness of the temper he aims for. Some of this information will be available on the smith’s website.

But what if the vendor of the sword isn’t the Smith?

How do I know where it’s from?
Well, you can ask the vendor, or you can try to identify the smith in a number of ways: by the “look” or by the smith’s mark. Not all smiths have a mark, but nearly all have a “look” – the colour of the grip-binding, and the way it’s done, features about the blade such as thickness, how the tang-button is done. Of course seeing a smith mark is no good if you don’t know which smith it belongs to. Enter the final part of this Entry: The Table of Sword Smiths.

It Isn’t Just the Metal

However good the temper of a sword is, the main factors that will make you decide to by it are how it looks and how it handles. See the typology page for what sword belongs in which period. Weight and balance are matters of personal preference. A lighter sword will be faster and suit most people, but those who can handle heavy swords may like them because of the advantage they give in blocking and the ability to cut through the opponent’s defences. A longer sword has greater reach (duh!) but is not quite as wieldy as a shorter blade. Other characteristics to look out for in a blade are to do with durability and safety. Skinny crossguards can bend, point cross guards can cause horrible injuries. Check the thickness of the blade. Does it conform with society safety rules (e.g. ours)? Is it so thin that it will bur and chip heavily? Examine the sword for the tang button, where the tang passes through the pommel and is peened over to hold the hilt furniture in place. If it isn’t there, then be concerned.

What about Seaxes/Spears/Daggers/axes….?

Most of this material applies to all metal weaponry. Here are some (incomplete) guidelines about what to look out for in various weapons…

Seaxes

How is the grip attached? Some methods of attaching seax grips will eventually fail i.e. the wooden grip will split. If it’s going to see lots of action, do you really want the kind where rivets are passed through the tang? Remember that a seax’s leading edge requires very much the same properties as a sword. There is also some debate about the authenticity of attaching handles with rivets e.g. VS5 on this page.

Spears

The qualities of the metal used in a spearhead are less important than the physical construction of the spearhead: it should be a single piece of metal, with no visible welding i.e. not a “slab and socket” construction. If it’s an un-shafted head, you want the socket of the head to be as near perfectly round as possible, because it will be so much easier to mount.

When you fix the spearhead to the shaft you'll need one or ideally two holes in the socket of the spearhead - if you don't have access to a drill you may want to buy one pre-drilled. Be aware that if the drilled hole is opposite the weak line where the two sides of the socket curl round and meet each other then you will want only a single hole - do not try to drill through the weak bit of the spearhead.

Finally, consider the diameter of the socket and how long the socket (as opposed to the entire spearhead length) is. A narrow socket will necessarily need a thinner spearhaft, at least at the business end, and that could make the spear more likely to snap. A longer socket will fix more securely to your spear (and protect more of the end from damage), but will weigh relatively more at the tip than is necessary (the effect is particularly noticeable because of leverage science) so is worth considering if you're after a light weapon.

Daggers

Very much the same as swords only smaller.

Axes

Again, the construction of the axe is infinitely more important than the properties of its edge; as such most of the things to look out for are listed on this page: axe guidelines. See how the head is secured. Check that you can handle it well i.e. it’s not too heavy. Axes should be bottom-hafted (i.e. the head is mounted from the bottom of the shaft), as this produces a much more robust axe than top-hafting. For safety reasons, some societies ban top-hafted axes.

Note of Safety Rules

Based on the Hastings 2006 weapon specs, minimum blade thickness is 2mm, swords and seaxes ought to be made of a steel capable of being tempered. In other words, EN45, CNM, or CV (there are others). Other weapons can be mild steel. There are also restrictions on the pointyness of weapons - wychwood uses the 5 penny piece rule.

Happy Sword-Buying

But first, some words of warning:
Buying a sword is a major investment. Ideally you should still get advice before handing over your cash, even if you have read all this. Try not to buy a weapon you haven't handled - you'd be surprised how different swords of even the same spec can feel. But don't let that put you off - Ferny has been fretting over which sword to buy for 6 years and counting but has enjoyed every sword he's used (bar the HEAVY Kovexes) in that time; there comes a point where you should just plunge right in and buy something. And finally, before you do it you should be sure you want continue in re-enactment after you leave university.

Table of Sword Smiths

smith smithmark Material Rockwell sword in wychwood
Armour Class none EN45(t) ? yes
Lancaster’s Armourie Letters; LA engraved CNM(t) ? no
Kovex-Ars Trefoil, stamped EN45(t) ? yes
Paul Binns none EN45(t),CV(t) ? yes
Paul Chen none EN45 n/a yes
Heron A heron perched on a ball, stamped EN45(t) ? yes
Pavel Moc Four leaves within a circle EN45(t) ? no
ARMA Stylised M EN45(t) 48-52 yes
Berbekucz Viktor Monogram BV CV(t) 48-54 no
GM historical none EN45(t) ? no

See the vendors page for links to suppliers' websites and reviews by members of Wychwood.

See the typology page for info on authenticity.

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