Wood vs Nylon vs Steel

Being a bit of a free spirit and a nomad, I move around a lot. This can be a bit of a nuisance when you want to carry a bunch of swords through an airport. If you’re anything like me, you’re loath to let your training slip even a little. That’s where practice swords come in handy for solo cutting drills. They’re also useful for those people who want to dip their toe into medieval style fencing, but don’t want to part with hundreds of pounds before they’ve figured out whether or not it’s for them. I thought I’d talk in brief about the pros and cons of training with the different types.

Wood, Synthetic and Steel Longswords

I love wooden swords as they always put me in mind of that fantasy trope of the master teaching the student sword play amidst the ruin of a castle like in the opening of Dragonheart or Arya Stark at her ‘dancing lessons’. When I lived in Kazakhstan, I took a beautifully, handmade wooden sword with a Purpleheart wood pommel with me for drill work. It was great. The only problem with wooden swords is that they will splinter and crack when you practice with someone else. They require oil and sanding and care, not unlike a real sword. What’s more, they have no give to them unlike a real blade that should have some flex to it. They can be just as dangerous as swinging around a baseball bat. I once cracked my wife on the noggin with one, which left her bleeding and me a whimpering wreck. If, like me, you’re something of a traditionalist though, they’re great. Just be careful.

The synthetic swords I’ve used have been the Rawlings Sparring Swords available at the knight shop/the HEMA shop (available here https://www.theknightshop.com/buy-hema-equipment/hema-weapons/synthetic-sparring-swords). They’ve received some mixed reviews from various schools. Blood and Iron martial arts don’t allow them in their salle while Schola Gladatoria doesn’t seem to mind them, but have acknowledged their short-comings. I think that their certainly decent for their price in terms of weight and customisation. Metal pommels and crossguards can be added to give them extra weight which is something you can’t do with a wooden sword. They do have problems. The most common complaint is that they bend with time, though this can be remedied by heating them gently. However, my biggest criticism of them is how slippery they are. When including devises in sparring or practising plays, the blades often slip off one another which means that they don’t accurately represent the bite sharpened blades have while binding. In other words, a sharp sword will stick to the blade of another sharp when there is pressure applied between the two edges, meaning that an opponent’s blade can manipulate can be manipulated, while the edges on these practice blades will slide around making it difficult to pressure your opponent’s sword. I’m going to experiment with scoring the edges and seeing if that makes a difference (more on this later). There are alternatives to the Rawlings on the market, but they will be more expensive. I’m probably going to get one of these in the future and I’ll write a review on the differences then.

Most of my collection of swords are blunts. I don’t often invest in swords that I can’t use in practice against an opponent. Using blunt steel swords in a free fight is about as close as you’re going to get to the real thing. I’ve heard of some HEMA groups who use sharps, but that’s just a lawsuit waiting to happen. Call me soft if you want, but most of the people I train with are my friends and carving them up is an unacceptable prospect. There’s more to blunted blades than just taking off the edges, though. The cross section of the blade is different. This means that they can take more punishment with thicker edges, but they’re actually often heavier than the real thing. Again, binding isn’t something that can be done accurately with blunt swords, but for everything else, whether you’re using a Federshwert or a recreation of one of the Ulfberht swords, they’re ace. There’s a good video on the construction on blunted swords here:

So, you can’t use sharps in sparring, is there any point in having them beyond decoration? Absolutely! There’s a lot you can do to practice your craft with sharps. Cutting practice is important in understanding how you land your blows, the amount of force that’s needed and the body mechanics behind a well-executed strike. As I have already mentioned, binding is something that can only be practiced in its truest form with sharp blades. Of course, there are also LARP swords… they’re fun for wailing on people.

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