by Steve Bivans
No, I’m not a serial killer or anything, just a sword geek, and medieval historian. That means it’s ok for me to think about such things.
Since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by weapons of one sort or another, but none holds the fascination for me, like the medieval broadsword. It has such elegance of design, even if its sole purpose is to kill other humans.
It’s not a hunting weapon, though you could use it to hack on a deer—good luck getting close enough—or a wild boar—good luck when you DO—but it is not designed for that purpose. It’s purpose is to hack other humans to death, or at least until they stop trying to hack you to death. But there’s something about it’s simple design that makes it beautiful.
To hold one in your hand is to learn many things about its function, about those who designed and forged it, and for whom it was fashioned. Now, let me be clear on one thing first. There is a vast difference between a hand-forged, well-crafted sword and one that is designed to hang on your wall and just ‘look cool.’
When you hold a ‘wall-hanger,’ as I call them, they feel like holding a Ginsu knife: cheap, crappy, rattle-y, dull, and usually too light, though not always. Some cheap ones are too heavy, because they’re made of stainless steel, thinking that since most kitchen knives are stainless, that swords should be too. Such a sword, if it didn’t wear you out physically before your enemy cut you in half, would probably break under the stresses involved in combat.
A good sword must be several things at once. It must be light enough to wield for an extended period of time: sometimes hours. It must also be light because lighter is quicker, and speed is essential in combat. At the same time, the sword must be strong and flexible. If it’s is not strong it will snap or bend, and you don’t want that when you’re in a fight, because the Viking standing on his sword to straighten it out, never meets a good end. Usually, their head ends up at their feet, and not because they’re an expert at yoga.
A sword should be flexible, which means it needs to bend ‘some’ but come back to ‘true’ immediately, like a spring. Being light, strong and flexible would be easy enough for a decent swordsmith to accomplish, but it must also have a very hard edge, so that it can be sharpened. Without a sharp cutting edge, a sword is essentially just a large, stick or club. It will cut nothing; trust me, you will see just how useless it is for cutting in the following video clip. If it is sharp, however, very different results are achieved.
In the following video clip, you will see myself and my friend, Keith Smith, hacking at the flesh and bone of a pig. Now, the pig–we named him Sir Cuthbert–was already dead, so don’t go all PETA on me, though I’m sure that PETA would argue that to kill a pig is inhumane to begin with. I’ll leave that discussion for another forum. The pig was dead, and had been cleaned, in other words, gutted, so you will not see any entrails or splashes of blood on the screen, however cool that might be to witness. Also, we BBQ’d him immediately afterwards. He was quite tasty. Check out my post on How to Make Real Pulled Pork BBQ.
We suspended the pig from a tree limb, and used tent stakes to secure his legs to the ground so that he would not spin around, which a warrior in the middle ages would not do, no matter how many times you see it in the movies. Also, as a side note, you never, ever, throw your sword at someone. It’s f’n stupid. Yes, it’s all dramatic-y in a movie, but it’s stupid. What if you miss? Guess what, your enemy now has your main weapon, and you don’t. Bye, bye. You’ll be inspecting your toes in a second, from a very different perspective than you’ve ever done so before, but you won’t be telling anyone about it.
Ok, for the ’science’ part of this little experiment. In short, it’s not science. There is no real ‘control’ in the experiment, unless you count the pig just sitting there and not being hacked as a control. If you don’t hack the pig with a sword, he fares pretty well, except for the being dead already part, of course. We used three different, hand-forged swords to do the hacking. The first one you will see, hacking on the short fore-leg of the pig, is my best sword. It’s a ‘hand and a half’, or bastard sword. You can see it in the photo on the below. It was hand forged from carbon steel, not stainless, and weighs just under 4 pounds: 3 lbs, 13 oz, and is about 42 inches long from pommel to tip. That makes it a pretty heavy sword, actually. No, swords did not weigh 40 lbs, or 20, in the middle ages, or Viking Age. The average viking sword weighed between 2 and 3 lbs. No, that’s not a typo. They were very light and maneuverable.
The second sword you will see, attempting to cut the pig in half at the waist, was forged by the same maker as mine, and it’s Keith’s two-handed claymore, which is actually lighter than mine, but I’m not sure what the weight is. It’s probably about 50 inches in length. The third, and final sword, is a curved blade, which belongs to Keith, and was hand-made by a swordsmith and friend of Keith. I don’t have the weight, but it’ probably about 3 lbs., and about 36 inches long, so about the weight and length of most Viking swords, though most of them had a straight edge.
The problem with testing ‘medieval’ weapons, and this goes for other types too, is that we don’t have medieval steel to make the replicas with. You could, of course, use an actual medieval sword, an artifact from a museum, but good luck on convincing the curator on that one. So, we’re pretty much stuck with using modern replicas, which makes the test non-scientific to begin with.
The only way to get around this, somewhat, would be to actually manufacture medieval steel from scratch, then forge the sword. But I’ve been told by some experts that this would cost somewhere in the range of $20,000, sooooooo no. Maybe one day, I’ll get some people together, raise some money on Kickstarter or something, and do it. The problem with the steel also comes into play when we try to test medieval armor too.
So any tests you see on TV, or anywhere else, is not really scientific either because all the steel in the test is modern, which is different than medieval steel. That’s not to say it’s better, though it is certainly more uniform in its properties. So the following test, is not scientific, but I think it will give you a pretty good idea of just how effective a medieval weapon could be. The medieval sources speak many times of the cutting power of swords. What we found, is interesting, to say the least. Now check out the clip below.
Also, I’m writing my first non-fiction book, entitled, Be a Hobbit, Save the Earth: the
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