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1) Sword Balance
2) Choosing a Sword
3) Gender Differences in Martial Training

Sword Balance

Sal Sanfratello
Owner, Founder, and Head Instructor of Aegis Academy of Swordsmanship

(An aspiring author claims that a sword is perfectly balanced when the blade and hilt weigh the same. A skeptical friend of the author disbelieves the author's claim, but cannot formulate a refutation, so he inquires to Sal. The article that follows is Sal's answer.)

There are several ways to "balance" a sword, and several factors that go into how to do so. For starters, let me tell you about how your friend is both right and wrong in his view of perfect balance.

For a fencing tool, like a foil, epee or a light sabre, or for a schloger (a double weight blade for fencing), there are two good reasons for having the CB (center of balance) on the crossguard. Both of them have to do with not killing someone: a virtue, I think you'd agree, not ideal in a sword.

The CB of a sword serves two purposes. One, it affects perception of the total weight of the sword. A sword that has its CB very close to the pad of the index finger junction of the palm will seem lighter and be more wieldy than one with its CB further away. In addition, a sword will swing around its CB: its radius of turn is defined by the distance from that point on the hand and its CB. As such, this makes fencing blades very easy to use in the hand, so much so that the mind will perceive the foil, etc, as an extension of the index finger.

By placing the CB on the crossguard, you also affect the CP (Centers of Percussion) of the blade.

Another common definition of a well balanced blade is the vibrational impact of the weapon on the hand of the wielder. If the blade rattles the crap out of the hand wielding it, it will bite, or shake out, or otherwise feel poorly to handle. Like all solid objects, when struck, a blade will ring. It will vibrate. And as such, there will be points on the blade, defined by a sine wave like function, that will NOT vibrate when struck. This means that these points, known as CP's, will generate force better, more cleanly and more efficiently, thus making them optimum contact points. For things like victims and wielders' hands, for example.

In a sword, the first of these no-shake points may be known as the forte. It is located at the CB, and is often used for defense through strength, which is to say: hit them with the weight of the blade. There is then in addition a wave that propagates outward in all directions up and down the length of the blade. Depending on the chord of the weapon and its weight and thickness, it may cross the blade once, and the handle once, unless the CB from which it originates is in the handle or so, in which case it will miss the weapon, leaving just the CB and the blade CP.

If the CB is between 3-5 inches forward of the crossguard, it will become the forte. The crossguard itself will often dampen vibration, bringing the rearward CP into the area of the handle, and hilt weights or pommels are intended to tune that point into location under the index finger, in addition to their nominal use of counter-weighting the weight of the blade versus the handle. In addition, the third, forward propagating CP will be located somewhere downblade, and the blade length should be determined by its location, extending 3 to 6 inches forward of that point, depending on intended use.

Yeah, I know. Its all technical language, and you have to look all of the terms up in order to understand. Sorry for not making it clearer, but it's science. :)

Going on, each of these things has a use. So, for example, the foil wants the CB in your hand, so it becomes an extended finger. The lower CP happens somewhere in the arm, the upper happens very near the tip, and so, the weapon turns quickly, is very tip oriented, attaches to the hand in the mind, can do anything your wrist can do, and can't hurt anyone for more than a bruise, which is mostly just the fact that its metal and moving fast. At the other end of the spectrum, you have an axe. All of its weight, the CB, is in its head. The lower CP is in the handle, and the upper is non-existent. It hits like a ton of bricks, once you get it moving you have very little control, and you can cut a person literally in half with one, but you won't be able to parry it at all, and it takes a lot of training to use well, since it's NOT identified in your mind as part of your hand.

For a fighting weapon, you really want something in between.

At Aegis, we use weapons with a CB about 3-5 inches forward of the crossguard. This puts a CP in the hand under the index finger, a CB/CP in the blade 5 inches forward of the guard, at the forte, which is very handy for applying strength to a attack or a block, and a third CP about 22 inches up the blade from the CB, which is known as the foible. It is fast, has a lot of leverage, and hits really hard with enough speed to penetrate deeply. It's moving at about 60 mph, even when the forte is almost stationary, allowing for one beat or action at the foible, and a second at the forte, which can be headed in different directions. The weapon doesn't turn as fast as a foil, but even the training weapons can break a foil in half without noticing it was there, and is almost as fast as a foil on the turn. They're a ton faster in rotation than a broadsword, whose CB is several inches further down the blade, and are thick enough to be able to withstand full on broadsword attacks to the forte, which is what fortes are for.

Here's a picture link of what our advanced weapons are simulating.

And a very good article about the same general topics on one of the best sword websites out there.

So, your friend has designed a good foil. It's a great weapon for playing touch tag; fast and dexterous, which is why they're used. It's not what you want for fighting, and especially not a heavily armoured opponent, which requires a different tool.

Like an axe.

- S

Choosing a Sword

Sal Sanfratello
Owner, Founder, Head Instructor, Chief Janitor, Aegis Consulting

(Ana wants to buy a sword, and seeks Sal's advice. The following article is Sal's rather comprehensive reply.)

So, to give you a bit of background here, what you have asked for is a very big topic, and I’ve owed an article to my whole school on this one for a very, very long time.  So, what I am going to do is write the article as a letter to you.  Please forgive me for going on at length to you, and for taking so long both to respond and to actually respond, as it were.

Your original question was who is the best person to buy a Lord of the Rings sword from?  Well, that’s both a simple and complicated question.  First, the simple answer: the only places you can buy such a sword from are the licensed distributors: United Cutlery makes the official stuff. They are a wholeseller, and you’ll need to buy from one of their distributors.  Regrettably, many of them are listing nearly the entire line of swords as out of stock.

To a certain extent, that is a good thing.  I’ve handled most of these items, and they are, for the most part, not worth the weight.  Why do I phrase it that way?  Well, I have a pretty good idea of how most reinactor and Rennie waistbands are made, and these things are weights like they’re intended to take your pants down.  To heavy to wield and too heavy to carry.

Before I go any further, please note that it is my intent for this to become a living document: I will add more manufacturers by the ton as I get more time to look things up,

That being said, then the question becomes, how do you go about getting a good sword that’s a lot like the LotR’s? Well, there’s a few questions you need to ask before you go sword shopping.

One of the best possible starting points on the Internet for sword shoppers is Sword Forum.  The good folk there have written the first half of this article for me: the technical considerations of creating parameters for sword purchase.  This article discusses little things, like deciding what kind of sword you want; not designwise, but rather for what use.  For example, hip jewelry can be had cheaply, but I can hack it in half with my machete in two hits, most occasions. In other words, not fighting steel.  It asks questions about costs, design considerations, and all of the other things a good smith needs to know to get you what you want.  Here is the link to the article.

Which brings us to step two of the process. Having decided what you want it for, how much you’re willing to spend, and the general design, you can now go looking for a provider.  Please note that I don’t say smith here: There are many types of swords that can be had from a mass market company.  They are almost universally on the low end of the sword quality spectrum, but, frankly, that’s more than 80% of the market.  
So, lets generally group swords into a few categories.  I’m going to call them Hip Jewelry, Stage swords, armory grade swords, good swords and art swords.

Hip Jewelry:  Inexpensive, stainless steel swords. Easily identified as pretty, shiny and cheap.  Come in two weights:  Very light or very heavy. Light ones make fun and attractive accessories for costume wear. Usually sold from mass producers out of India, Pakistan and China.  These swords are lightly constructed, and will not survive any actual swinging use. ( It should be noted that the heavy ones will snap off at their rattail tang, see above; the light ones bend and break all over the place, and at the tang.)  Distributors include Windlass Cutlery, United Cutlery, Atlanta Cutlery / Museum Replica Arms, some Del Tin Arms, Paul Chen and many, many others. Prices range from $25 to $350, depending on the sucker factor. Prices are higher at Faires by ~25%

Problems include breakage, poor fittings and cheap materials, glue bonds that can’t take strain, and generally weak products that can’t take what they ergonomically feel like they’re made for: swinging and hitting things.

Stage Swords:  Come in two varieties: Pretty and ugly. They’re usually the exact same product, but the former has been polished, and are thus more expensive. To quote Smithing wisdom, “ I’ll forge for you all day for nothing: Polishing costs.” Solid pieces of steel like a hammer or a screwdriver, often with just as much grace. Durability is a high priority, as is a nice square edge on the blade, so that a stage combatant can tell at a glance whether he’s facing a live weapon or a stage weapon.  Temper is usually very inconsistent, tending toward soft, except where welds have hardened the crap out of the steel.  Usually welded into on continuous piece of metal so that no pieces can be removed or lost.  These weapons are made to be used on another similar weapon repeatedly, and are particularly hard to sharpen since their geometry is specifically designed to make it so.  The only way to sharpen most of these pieces is the fine art of stock removal, or regrinding the blade, in the non-technical parlance.

My machete would have trouble hacking one of these through. Same with crowbars, however.

Manufacturers include Del Tin Armouries, Paul Chen, CAS Iberia, and a ton of others. Prices are about the same as for Hip Jewelry, but the hip jewelry will almost always be prettier and lighter to carry.

Armory Grade Swords: These are the first group of what I’d consider Fighting swords. These are, however, not GOOD fighting swords.  These often are described as “Battle Ready” and such. I hope that if I ever have to cross swords with someone, they’ll be armed with one of these. I’ll take my machete and a can of Lysol and make brachiolle out of them.  For any of the trained fighters of Aegis, these weapons will often prove as much of a hindrance as an aide in a fight, mostly due to the distraction and mistimings these weapons would introduce to the fight, due to things like bad resonance and poor COP and COB. (Duh: Center of Percussion and Center of Balance.)

These weapons are usually marked by being heavy, moderately clean or polished, moderately balanced, moderately pretty, moderately sloppy feeling in the swing,  They almost always have either a full tang or a riveted and scaled handle.  Their tempering will often be undocumented, and a strike test will show them to be homogenously tempered. Their handles will often be made out of either traditional materials or steel wire wrap.

They may include a scabbard, but not always. They are usually sold blunt, but with a blade taper on the edge.  They can be sharpened with a little elbow grease and some sandpaper, and then traditional whetting techniques.

These are the blue collar workers of the sword world. They are made by some armourers in the US and Europe, but most are knocked out by traditional smiths in south Asia, using the same materials as they use for their own knives and kukris and parangs and the like. They’re usable, but often are not ergonomic.  They can be too heavy by up to 125% of the correct weight. Because of these two factors, the cheaper examples are often are bought as hip jewelry, and are relegated as wall hangers or closet bait quickly.

The nicer examples of these are often the correct weight and temper, but are made of lower grades of steels. These are sometimes cited as “traditional” steels. You probably, however, do not want whatever steel is “traditional” in a village in upper Gujurat, and particularly if there might be a fight in your future.  My machete, for example, is made of tool steel: that is to say, steel DESIGNED BY MODERN, PROFESSIONAL METALLURGISTS to cut through steel.  

Providers include Atlanta Cutlery / Museum Replicas, rumours that Del Tin has an in house program that offers these and some, very limited Good Swords (It should be noted here that Del Tin and Atlanta Cutlery were both founded by men who are very serious about swords; its just that the market has pulled the company in one direction and the men in the other. There is often gold to be found in the dross, and having fought with Hank of Atlanta, I found him to be a good man. The owner of Del Tin has a quiet reputation of honour.) Paul Chen’s best swords come into this category, Musashi, out of China, makes a great $250 katana, but it remains a lower quality weapon, however impressive for it’s price. Prices for most of these types of weapons hover around $300-350.  (It should be noted that I had a discussion with a armourer not so long ago about our mutual, independent search for a $500 Armoury grade sword. We’d both like to have something that would span the gap between $300 and OHMIGODWHAT$$$$!?!?)

Good Swords: Ah.  Here we go.  The comfort zone.  Just $850 to $2000 or more per ticket…
Seriously, though. This is where I recommend that people who are serious about swords shop.  Big dollars to enter, each piece custom made, and an 18-36 month waiting list. All that having been said, there’s some interesting things that happen at this level. First, all of the names change.  This group is produced by people like Peter Lyon, who made the actual steel used in Lord of the Rings, and Angus Trim, Sword Forum’s house armourer, and Jim Hirsoulis, who works almost exclusively in Damascus, and takes no orders: He makes, you buy or you don’t. He has no waiting list because at that point, there’s no point. It would be too long. The good news here is that there are literally hundreds of armourers of varying quality producing weapons in this area. It should be noted here that the names I rattled off above are good, but not uniquely notable in this community.  There are a Lot of Good Smiths out there right now.

So how do you find them?  Well, bluntly, you interview them. Did they ask you all of the questions Sword Forum and I asked you?  If not, Why Not?  Don’t worry about if they quibble terms: this is art, not science, and lots of schools are coining terms for sword performance all of the time. The good smith will ask a lot of questions, guess at a few things, and then let you know that they will not agree to deliver to exact tolerances, and will usually agree to within a ½ inch of what you request.  Also know how wide you like your grips, and ask about scabbards. They may or may not have a scabbard maker they work with. Know how you want to hang your scabbard, and recognize that this is also a custom made tool.  Expect to pay extra for it, and recognize that for an art grade scabbard, it will double the price of the sword.

Consider having a photo of what you’d like to end up with that you can surrender to the smith, and a sketch with critical numbers on it, like length, grip length, COP and COB,  minimum. These measures define the performance of the sword, and the swords’ dynamic impact, or how it feels in the hand.  This is what we teach you to tune in your practice swords: experiment with these tools to learn what you want your sword to do BEFORE you talk to your smith about the details.  But, don’t let that keep you from getting on that wait list. They need the numbers the day before they begin forging: the wait list starts LONG before that day.  (Also note: they’ll also probably want half cash in advance as well: don’t give it over until they’re ready to begin.  Smiths are artists as well as craftsmen, and therefore are not bookkeepers.)

What do you get for all of this hassle, and all of this money? Bluntly, a Weapon of Legend. Traditional swords were not made by craftsmen; they were mass produced by apprentices for use by mostly untrained men at arms. Your “Good” sword will, assuming that you’ve chosen the right smith, will be made by a master who loves a lost art.  The quality of the steel, which you should discuss and then RESEARCH and approve (yes, you can bring me the stuff and we’ll look it over together…) should be able to literally cleave traditional weapons in twain. It may be weather and rust proof or resistant. Its temper, the most important element in most swords, will be calculated and probably outsourced to a toolmaker to insure precision and quality.

You will get a weapon that WANTS to dance. It will have a LPM (Low Percussive Moment), because that’s what you’re trained to use if you fight at Aegis. Why? Because it makes you faster, instead of a HPM, which penetrates hardened armour. Your weapon will respond to nuances of your hand, because the grip will be fitted to your hand. The tempering and balance will allow the sword to tell you things about itself when it moves and when it strikes.  It will be a weapon worthy of being an heirloom like the Legends of old.  And, it will be tougher and more enduring in every regard than those legends.

These swords are a match for my machete.  (my machete, BTW, is made by Ontario Knife Works. For anyone who knows machetes, I’ve never had a problem with my handle. The machete is tool steel, hardened to not have problems with nails. And, its balanced for throwing. $45. So worth the price. Now, if Ontario made swords…)

Insist on a guarantee for full refund or replacement within 6 months for the weapon for damage taken during normal use, forever. See what the smith is willing to offer in response.  It’ll tell you a lot about the smith. Expect a more practical proposal, but stick pretty closely to what I’ve said. It’s a tool of Legend: its maker should trust it like one.

Art Swords:  Now, things get weird. Like, pushing rationality weird.  These swords come in two flavours: OHMYGODWOW and gun porn.  Let me elaborate…

“Pretty” art swords.  All smiths want to make these, and very few have the time or the financial backing, so it’s a bit of a specialty school. As an example, Angel Swords.  Check out the website.  Each weapon is cored with a “good” sword, then, loving art is added to it in materials that will withstand the fight. These are true master works. These are weapons inspired by artists, not history or fighting.  They will have hand sculptured components cast out of silicon bronze, and the etched details picked out in platinum.
They will have grips of fossilized mastodon tooth and sharkskin inlays. It may have a crystal pommel that’s been tapped with a 1/16” drill and been impregnated with tritium and backfilled with Krylon Crystal Clear Epoxy, and will gently emit light for 400 years. They may be inscribed with runes of power that actually absorb Ki. If it’s not, it probably should be. (please note that any weapon could do this: that’s why we don’t allow power symbols on practice weapons…) They will bear gemstones of worth.  The smith may not be willing to discuss your preferences in stone colours.  It may not be aesthetic: they may not feel that your preference in stones will survive the hits. They may feel that your stones will negatively affect the resonance of the weapon. They may feel that your preference of stones are tacky.

These are prestige weapons.  They are distinctive from prestige art pieces, because those fall into the category of hip jewelry, bringing us full circle.  These are first and foremost killing tools, and are second a museum piece in the art wing, rather than the history wing. I have seen these pieces go for in excess of $60,000, and for them to move for as little as $2000. There’s just no telling, as these are commodity pieces, and sometimes people need to sell their commodities.  Get homeowner’s insurance on these, and register them on Sword Forum’s Sword Registry.  Get a custom lockable case and a wall sconce for them. Learn how to care for them like you might a child or a treasured pet. They probably deserve it.

Techno-Swords:  It should be noted that these categories are not exclusive of each other.  These are the swords that are made of only the rarest and most expensive exotic materials. Swedish S-4101 cores with T-2 cutting edges and hot-oil / cool air hardening steels in the plaquets. These swords RIPEN, for god’s sake. I am not kidding.  The cost of the materials alone put these into the art sword category, and they can, if backed by a large enough pneumatic driver, literally cut through a TANK, Main Battle variety.  These swords are insane, and when the technology becomes available, will be the first swords edged with forcefields, for crying out loud.

But don’t you JUST want to see what they can do? Say, to THAT, over there?  
“Bob, that’s a patrol car…”

To call these swords experimental is very tempting.  Often, the smith is playing around with steels not really meant to be forged, and a lot of them are getting very good results.  Also, a lot of them are wasting some very, very good steel ruining them in process. Often, these groups overlap. Caveat Emptor.

So, anyway, at current, this article only mentions a half dozen smiths and armourers by name.  I don’t have the Internet in front of me right now, which would allow me to more than treble that number. As time and the future allows me to, I will expand this article with more names, URLs, and item examples.

Ana, for you, I say this: you’re a dreamer. Write Peter Lyon, and see what his waiting list is like.  He just finished his bachelors degree. When the list is a lifetime long, then see if you can hire him to design YOU a sword, or a trusted smith friend of his in need of work to make.  You’ll never love anything inanimate as much.


Gender Differences in Martial Training

Lynda Gronlund
Instructor, Aegis Academy of Swordsmanship

There is a heated debate going on in an online female martial arts community that I watch. It is about gender differences and whether they should be acknowledged or not in martial arts. The hardcore feminists are mostly of the opinion that acknowledging any difference between the genders and altering training accordingly is always an automatic disservice to the women. I am both a female martial artist and a feminist, and I have to disagree. This is probably not news to you, but men and women are physically different, and not just in the really obvious ways. Things like height, healthy muscle-to-fat ratios, joint angles and center of gravity vary widely depending on the individual, but there are definite trends depending on gender. Not every woman will be shorter and lighter than every man, but most women will be smaller and lighter than most men. Similarly, most women have lower centers of gravity, different shoulder, hand and arm angles and often more natural flexibility in the legs. (Check out The Armored Rose by Tobi Beck for some interesting illustrations and writing on male / female differences as applied to SCA swordfighting – it’s limited by the style but can be applied to other forms.) When it comes to strength and muscle mass it's not that we're much weaker, it's that our greater strength is in our lower bodies where a male has more mass and strength up top. These things are all on a scale with lots of variation. No one should feel inferior or freakish if their pattern is closer to the other gender than their own; they should simply acknowledge and work with what they have to their best advantage. But ignoring the differences in the vast majority is a great way to ensure that females will never do as well in martial arts as males. Most martial traditions have been created and tailored to male bodies. The “correct” way of doing something will be most useful for a male of typical build; sometimes of typical build for the culture in which the style originated which can be very different from worldwide averages. In an ideal situation, everything would be custom-taught for each student since no two people are identical and some variation in movement is inevitable. But it’s impractical to expect every instructor to be able to do this for every student in non-private classes, so we tend to go by averages and adjust as needed for individual students, with their help through their own observation and experimentation (since as a student you have just as much if not more responsibility for your training as your teacher). By actively creating ways to take advantage of the differences instead of seeing them as handicaps, women can be trained to be much more effective combatants. Males and females can compete on very equal terms with one another (and in my school do all the time), but not usually if they are trying to do exactly the same thing. I can hit just as hard a man who is stronger in his upper body because I have been taught to use my stronger lower body, particularly the hips, to help power blows. In ground fighting it’s important for females to keep in mind their lower center of gravity. Trying to pin a man to the floor by his chest with my arms is not going to work so well because it’s using one of my less strong, lighter parts against his strength. If I place my hips above his center of gravity and pin the arms with my knees, it’s much more likely that I can hold him in place long enough to do him a lot of harm. Hip checks and kicks are going to be essential tools in a woman’s repertoire because those play to her strengths. Throws will be much more effective when using the hips as a fulcrum rather than the shoulders. Range is also an essential piece of knowledge for small to medium women when fighting men who are larger than they are. There is a range where the man’s longer limbs can damage the women but the woman can’t reach in to hurt her opponent; this is a place to be avoided by either getting in and staying in very close or staying out of range altogether until a decisive and fast moment of attack.

Thinking about these things is not just good for the women; men benefit by considering how best to fight female opponents too. I have heard a woman pinned by her hips to the ground described as “like fighting two vicious short people,” because she’s been effectively divided in two but both halves can still keep pummeling until she gets a vital hit in. Men can maximize their effectiveness against good female fighters by controlling range and immobilizing the lower body and hips in particular.

Physical differences aren’t the only ones to consider in training. Between cultural conditioning and differences in hormone levels and brain chemistry, men and women tend to have different ways of thinking about fighting and reacting in a dangerous situation. As a teacher I can help my female students who are more reluctant to spar get over it and get in there because I know the general thought process they're experiencing and what brought them there. I can help my male students learn that it's okay to treat women as their equals in sparring because I'm aware of what’s going on there, too. Neither of these patterns are present in anywhere near 100% of students, but they are certainly worth thinking about in order to help the large number of students who do start out with them. Another mental trap women sometimes get caught in is something like female machismo. They feel like because they’re female they need to prove themselves equal to or better than their male counterparts and end up working themselves past the point of injury or training in ways that don’t make a lot of sense for them. In their quest to prove that women, and therefore they, can be just as strong, capable, brave, independent, successful, etc. as men, they tend to adopt some of the most destructive macho patterns that trap and hold back many men. They also end up reinforcing the idea that the quality of being female is something negative to be overcome, risen above. Not only to themselves, but to others.

Sometimes they end up discouraged beyond the point of wanting to continue training because they keep butting their heads against a brick wall fighting against who and what they are rather than just learning to be good fighters. This can be exacerbated by other students and instructors, male or female, depending on how they interact. I don’t suggest as some well-intentioned but misguided people do that these women get their nails done and learn to like wearing pink to fix the problem, but they do need to learn to accept and embrace the particular body they possess in order to be most effective in training it. They need to stop worrying so much about not being perceived as "girly" and just be who they are in the most genuine way possible. Whether that means they are considered more masculine or feminine by others or even themselves should be irrelevant. Everything exists on a scale and we are all human before we are male / female or somewhere in between.

In the end, martial arts are about being so ultimately comfortable in our own bodies that we can trust them to protect us from any threat. Part of this for women is knowing that we’re different from the guys and that’s more than okay – it’s great. We can do some things easily that don’t come naturally for them. The opposite applies as well, but regardless knowing and using the best techniques and training for one’s own body and brain will make the best fighters of either gender or for that matter any other variable one can apply.