There a number of key points when purchasing a sword which I will go through.

Steel Quality

The first point is the quality and type of steel used in the blade. If its stainless steel, its a decorative sword, nothing more. It doesn't matter where the steel comes from, stainless steel looks great, but can not handle the punishment of being used.

Generally speaking, the sword should definitely be a made of high-carbon steel. For a sword that can take as good as it gets 5160 steel is the choice. Its used in truck springs, and is very strong. Also, ensure that the quality of the steel is good. Recycled steel can be good, in fact some of the best swords are made from recycled steel. However, some recycled steel is not recycled correctly, and can be of very low quality, causing micro cracks to appear, reducing the overall strength of the sword. You should talk to the seller about where the steel came from, and what type it is.

Heat treating

An often overlooked attribute when looking for the sword, how the sword was made is very important. Heat treating is designed to create a balance between the toughness and hardness. Toughness defines the sword's impact resistance and shock handling abilities, while hardness defines the sword's ability to hold an edge. If the sword is too hard, it will be very sharp, but will shatter or crack when hit. If the sword is too tough, it will dull and get nicks in it.

The Rockwell "C" scale is a measurement of the hardness of steel. If you are purchasing a sword from someone who has never heard of this scale, then perhaps you had better think twice about the quality of the sword they are offering.

40 HRc would be the minimum on the Rockwell scale I would recommend. At this level, the sword will be springy, but shouldn't chip if hit edge on edge and dents can be hammered out. Anything over 60HRc is getting dangerously brittle. 60HRc is where the high quality Japanese katanas lie. At 60HRc, edge-on-edge fighting should NEVER be done, since this is not the correct use of this type of sword, and will defiantly cause chips.

Handling

This is something that most of us, if aware of how a sword should work (eg generally not be so damn heavy you need all your strength to wield a one handed sword) should be able to detect reasonably well. A sword's optimum point of balance (or PoB) varies with the type of sword, however the usual optimum spot would be between 3 to 6 inches from the guard. If the sword is handle heavy, then the sword will feel light to wield, however it will have little effect when it strikes a target. On the other side, a sword that is blade heavy (very easy to detect), will have great effect if it strikes, however it will be very tiresome to swing around.

Some cheaper swords achieve are inherently blade heavy, and combat this by increasing the weight of the pummel and or increasing the length of the hilt. This can be noted by looking at the overall weight of the sword, and the length of the hilt.

Some swords have a fuller that runs from 2/3s to the full length of the blade. This reduces the weight of the sword, but note that a full fuller *could* weaken the blade at the point, this is a matter that is hard to judge unless you see the sword yourself.

The sweet spot of the blade is the spot where, if hit, vibrates the least. This is the optimum point to strike with at your target. A poorly designed sword will have no sweet spot, or one which isn't located near the end of the sword. All swords vibrate when hit, if these vibrations are large enough, they can transfer to the hilt, and make holding the sword in battle difficult.

The tang

My favourite part of the sword, because it is often overlooked and forgotten about, until it breaks. The tang is the part of the blade which extents into the hilt (or handle). A badly designed, and practically useless sword will have only a half tang, meaning it doesn't run the entire length of the hilt. Do NOT buy a sword that has only a half tang, unless you are only looking for a decorative sword. (Note: I was just informed that traditional Japanese swords only have a half-tang since they are only used for slashing. Which proves a point that you should never just listen to one persons opinion on what to look for in a sword)

In my opinion, the best tang is the rat-tail tang, where the pommel is screwed onto it. This means the pommel, and with it the entire handle, can be removed. This allows for inspection of the tang for weakness or (heaven forbid, rust).

Ideally, the tang should taper from about 3/4 or 2/3s of the width of the sword, down to a thin point the pommel attaches to. If the tang is a simple thin point straight from the handle, with no tapering, then this becomes a weak spot, which can snap during battle.

The other item I will include in here is the hilt. Some cheaper hilts have a circular hole which the tang enters. However the tang is not circular, this leads to loose hilts. One way of spotting this is to sharply rotate the sword about the long axis, and note if the hilt moves at all.


In all, if you think about it, a lot of the points (pun intended) of good swords are easily guessed and can be looked for, but beware of the less obvious, and sometimes invisible attributes, such as the tang, PoB and sweet spot.

There are numerous resources available on the web and in books that go into much more detail about purchasing swords, and if you are purchasing a particular type of sword it is best to read or speak with experts on that type, in order to understand some of the unique points for that type of sword.

I am sorry, but there are several glaring problems with this writeup that I simply cannot let lie. Anyone reading this node with a serious interest in sword collecting would be led far astray by the points it makes, thus it must be corrected. A collector without a great deal of financial clout, like myself, would end up buying swords that are more or less worthless if they followed the above advice. This writeup will focus on my particular area of expertise, Japanese swords, although the above writeup hints at this by including the advice on differential tempering.

The Blade

Ok, for a start, 5160 spring steel is NOT the best steel for a blade. AISI 5160 is a decent form of carbon steel, at 0.55-0.60% carbon, but is far from the 'best' material. It is frequently the choice of economy blade factories who want to be able to write 'carbon steel' in their marketing literature. AISI 1095 is 0.95%, and will outcut 5160 every time. However, more important than the metal is the skill of the bladesmith and the technique used to forge the blade. I know several good bladesmiths who can forge a blade from plain stainless steel that will cut straight through a factory-made carbon steel blade. However, your average collector cannot afford such highly-crafted blades, so we will focus instead on plain facts. Factory-made blades are commonplace, but useless for combat. Even blades factory-produced from 5160 are often riddled with slag inclusions, and are frequently recycled from automobile parts etc which weakens the produced blades considerably.

The serious collector should aim for no less than hand-forged blades, and if possible pattern-welded. A hand-forged blade is made using no more than a hammer, chisel and sand wheel, and yes there are many blades out there like that, I have recently bought two myself. Such blades are invariably stronger and better crafted than their factory made counterparts. Pattern-welding is a very expensive process, also called fold-forging. This technique involved using layers of metal, folding over and pounding them together with a hammer while red-hot. The metal is then folded again and so on. This lends the blade enhanced durability and internal homogeneities, which will extend the life of your sword many times over. A pattern-welded blade should show many irregular light and dark lines along the blade, where the metal has been folded. However, some cheap blades also display these lines as a natural formation of alloy banding, which is the sign of a bad blade. Only experience can show you the difference.

However, the big thing to look out for is differential tempering. Through this process, the blade is packed in clay which is thicker at the back than at the front, and then tempered. This causes the blade to cool at different rates, creating hard, sharp steel along the edge and soft, flexible steel along the spine. This allows the sword to take repeated heavy blows without bending or chipping. An ideal hardness distribution is RC60/RC40 from edge to spine - look for these numbers before buying a blade. Harder than RC60, the edge become too brittle and will chip off when used. Differentially tempered blades are recognisable by the distinctive 'hamon' or temper-line, which resembles a wave-like border between light and dark all the way along the length of the blade. Beware fake blades with over-regular hamon, as the line in this case has been acid-etched and is not authentic. Fullers, shallow channels also incorrectly termed 'blood grooves', are often seen in more expensive blades, and are used to make the blade lighter with no loss in strength.

The Handle

The above writeup offers no mention of the handle on the sword, so I will attempt to compensate. The handle can be the most important part of the sword, because a good blade on a bad handle equals a dead swordsman. Authentic swords are made with handles constructed of wood with rayskin over the top, then wrapped in the traditional diamond-wrap method. A good way to check for a well-wrapped handle is to look for small, triangular pieces of paper within the wraps. These are used to maintain the pattern, and are part of the traditional Japanese method. Cheaper swords often have handles made either entirely of wood or worse, of hollow wire-wrap. Either of these could get you killed in a sword fight, or get you laughed at by the first serious collector to get a good look at your swords. Always ask what the handle is made of and more importantly, can it be removed from the blade. A good sword will have two or more small pins which attach the handle to the blade. Removal of these should reveal the tang, the unsharpened part of the blade that retreats into the handle. If the tang is signed, then you generally have a very good blade in your hands. The tang should fit snugly inside the handle with no wobble, without the application of vast quantities of wood glue, often seen in replica blades.

The Tang

This is where the above writeup commits its greatest sin - declaring the 'rat-tail' tang to be the best. This may be due to his misunderstanding of the definition of what a rat-tail tang is. A rat-rail, generally, is named as such because it is thin, not because it screws onto the pommel. By this definition, the pommel-less Japanese katana could never have a rat-tail, and yet many cheap blades still do. A rat-tail should be avoided at all costs for anything but a decorative blade, because it will most likely snap straight off as soon as you try to cut something. Rat-tails are used in cheap swords to save money, and are generally thin bars of cheap steel spot-welded onto the bottom of the blade. The end of the tang is also usually threaded, so that a pommel may be screwed on, but this is for reasons of economy rather than strength. A rat-tail creates a weak-point in the sword, focusing all of the force onto a tiny little weld. I have seen rat-tailed blades snap straight off their handles after one strike, after which their sullen owners never again buy such swords. In general, a tang should be 3/4 to 1/2 the width of the blade, and extend at least 7" into the handle. Less than that and you are risking serious stress fractures over time. As stated above, a good sword will allow complete removal of the handle to allow inspection and/or cleaning of the tang, to prevent rust buildup. Always look for the magic words - "full tang".

The Collar

Another fact not mentioned is the blade collar or 'habaki'. This is the small, rectangular piece of metal that secures the blade to the handle, and is of absolutely vital importance. Cheap blades like those made by Paul Chen/Hanwei have habaki constructed of plastic and coated in metallic paint, which results in an unusable sword. You dont make a whole car out of steel and then make the axles out of plastic, because it makes the whole car useless. Always check that the habaki is well secured into the handle, and that it is made of either brass, bronze or even better steel. Otherwise, no matter the quality of the rest, you have just bought a very expensive wall decoration.

The Scabbard

Also not mentioned but important is the scabbard. Whilst the external decoration of the scabbard is up to personal preference and/or sword purpose, the inside of the scabbard is of great importance. Cheap swords come with roughly hewn wooden scabbards which will over time damage the blade inside and destroy its polish. A well-made scabbard should be finished both inside and out, to prevent this. The sword must be easily drawn but not loose in any way, or it will likely fall from the scabbard randomly.

That concludes this writeup, hopefully I have put to rest some of the poor advice seen in this node. However, there is no subsitute for real experience, so search the internet for the really in-depth information before purchasing. I would advise visits to sword shows and clubs etc, where you will have the opportunity to handle dozens of well made and balanced blades. Use this knowledge as a basis for buying your next swords, and avoid buying from catalogues if you can. Companies like Battle Orders sell great replica gear, but nothing that can be used in a fight or for sword training.

On buying bated swords for fighting mock duels or training in the art of defense

The following is relatively SCA-centric, since that's the organisation I fight in, but the principles should be similar for any sword intended for sparring regardless of the specific rules you're playing under. If you are in the habit of going out and swinging three-foot lengths of steel at your friends, I presume that you are doing so under the aegis of some sort of organization, which has their own set of safety rules and standards. Their rules obviously supersede the ramblings of a random stranger on the internet. When in doubt, ask your local marshal/fencing master/expert.

In the Society, the term "fencing" has stretched at this point to cover any form of sword combat fought with blunted steel weapons by unarmoured* combatants, not just Renaissance-period rapier combat. As a result, it presently includes earlier styles such as two-handed sword work and 13th century sword-and-buckler techniques,** and various sword types including curved blades such as sabres and katanas. At this point we probably should just start referring to it as "swordfighting" or something, but that's a whole different kettle of fish.

The Blade

These weapons are intended for sparring, so the blade isn't sharp and isn't supposed to be. As a result, there is no need to find a balance between a springy, relatively soft steel spine and a hardened edge, and the entire blade is usually made from some variety of high-carbon or alloy steel. One-handed swords most commonly use a 35in blade (measured from the grip to the tip, not including the tang), although 38, 40, and even 42in blades seem to be increasingly popular - personally, I think 42in is more than a bit silly on a one-handed sword, but some of the really tall fencers seem to like them. Again, within the constraints of the rules, find a blade length that's comfortable to use. Two-handed swords obviously may have even longer blades: I've seen greatsword blades advertised up to 52in.

The cross-section is typically oval or diamond-shaped, and the blade tapers from hilt to point. A diamond cross-section gives the blade a more authentically period appearance, at least for a 16th c. rapier; otherwise they are not significantly different in terms of performance. Alchem makes blades that are just flat steel with a rounded edge and a more pronounced taper, which gives them a much earlier period look. All of the curved (katana or sabre style) blades I've seen have a flat cross-section.

There's a fine line - which is largely up to personal taste - between a blade that's flexible enough to hit your friends with, and one that's excessively whippy. The blade must have some flexibility to absorb the force of a direct thrust; even a few pounds of force behind a 3/4" diameter blunt is quite enough to leave a nasty bruise. On the other hand, if the blade is too flexible the point will wobble and be hard to control. This is especially a problem with long blades - the same steel, thickness, and cross-section that make a perfectly acceptable 35in blade may well make an excessively floppy 40in. One of my local marshals has a theory that flexible blades are more likely to fail and will fail faster than rigid ones because the constant flexing weakens the metal in much the same way that bending and straightening a paper clip will eventually break it. Anecdotally, there may be some truth to it - the only blade I've had fail was a fairly flexible Hanwei that only lasted about six months - but so far no one I know of has any real data on blade failure rates.

The blade should have a full tang, meaning that the metal of the blade should run the full length of the hilt; this is stronger and more secure than having the blade socketed into the hilt, and means that the pommel can be securely fastened to the end of the tang. Typically, the last few inches of the tang is threaded and the pommel is screwed on, although I do know of one swordsmith who makes flat-tang blades and attaches the pommel with a spring pin. Threaded pommels tend to work loose after a while, but are very easy to disassemble if you need to replace the blade or any other parts. The tang and blade should be forged as a single piece; any welds are a potential weak point.

The Hilt

This is very much a matter of personal preference. The grip should feel comfortable in the hand, and beyond that it's mostly aesthetics. Most people find that a round grip shaped like a cylinder or tapered cylinder isn't very comfortable to use if you can't curl your fingers around the ricasso; it tends to turn in the hand, so you end up holding it tighter, which is tiring and less flexible than a looser grasp.

The variation in guard styles is nearly endless, from plain cross hilts through various side rings and knuckle guards up to fancy swept and cup hilts. This is mostly a function of the style and period of the sword: a katana will have a tsuba, a 16th century rapier will have a swept or cup guard, and so on. The late period European guards do have a couple practical advantages. Since they extend a couple inches in front of the crossguard, the fencer can wrap his fingers around the ricasso, which provides a stronger grip, and the guard protects the sword hand. However, with practice the quillons will serve to protect the hand very effectively, so if a late-period cup hilt rapier doesn't match your style, there's really no compelling reason to use one. (The only reason I even own a swept-hilt rapier is because it was given to me; my area of interest is the Principality of Antioch in the 13th century, so I much prefer using a sword that at least looks like a Crusader longsword.)

The crossguard on a swept- or cup-hilt rapier is frequently curved, either a "C" curve, where both ends bend forward toward the blade, or an "S" curve, where one end bends forward and the other back. A forward-curved quillon is useful for catching and controlling an opponent's blade (or even disarming him).

If you're likely to need to use the sword in either hand (if your rules allow for disabling limbs, or you expect to fence with case of rapiers), you may want to consider an ambidextrous setup in which the guard is symmetrical. This is not entirely necessary; my current rapier has a right-handed guard, but is perfectly comfortable and effective used left-handed.

The Overall Weapon

The balance of the sword is a function of its centre of mass. If the centre of mass is very close to the hilt, the sword will feel lighter in the hand. It will require less strength to wield, and it will be easier to control. The further along the blade the centre of mass moves, the more tip-heavy the sword feels. This requires more wrist and forearm strength, but gives it more momentum behind beats and parries. Some fencers strongly prefer one or the other; others swap back and forth depending on what feels better on a given day.

The type of sword you use will affect your fencing style (or possibly, you should choose a sword that matches your style, depending on how you choose to look at it). A katana lends itself to a close-range, slash-based fencing style, while an extra-long rapier lends itself to point work. If you use a lot of binds, you may want to consider a C-curved rather than straight crossguard. The combination of weight, balance point and grip means that different swords handle very differently; in the end, within the bounds set by the rules, the sword you want to buy is one you want to use.

As with any substantial purchase - a bottom-end rapier runs about $120 (US), and they go up from there - it's a good idea to play with it a bit before putting down any money. Pick it up, see how the weight and balance feel, make sure the hilt sits comfortably in your hand. If you can't manage that, find someone who already owns one from the same maker and see if you can borrow it.

What you do with the sword once you've bought it is entirely outside the scope of this writeup (which is quite long enough already), but I'll add a couple notes on the care and feeding of rapiers. Since the steel of the blade is not stainless (stainless is too hard and inflexible for fencing blades), it should be kept dry and clean. Any rust should be cleaned off as soon as possible. The edge will inevitably get nicked and roughed up in combat. A rough edge can catch and possibly tear an opponent's clothing, and can weaken the structure of the blade, so they should be smoothed out. Small nicks can usually be buffed out with steel wool or sandpaper, while deeper ones will require the use of a file.

*"Unarmoured" as in not wearing heavy leather or metal armour; fencers are nominally assumed to be duellists wearing street clothes, not armoured combatants on a battlefield. In the interests of not actually killing anyone, suitable protective gear is obviously a good idea.

**The earliest extant manual on European sword-fighting technique is the I.33 manual, which dates to about 1295 and describes a sword-and-buckler style clearly being practised by combatants in ordinary clothing, not armour. I haven't had a chance to pick his brain for the details, but one of the fencers in my area has documented mock fights fought in street clothes with blunt swords back to the beginning of the 13th c.

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