Antique and Replica Swords: Part 1


It is not difficult to understand the appeal of collecting swords and similar military antiques. For thousands of antique collectors nothing has the drama and romance of blades. Few symbols of the past have the same psychological impact of swords and similar collectibles. This is the first of a few articles on the history of and tips on collecting original antique and modern replica swords.

They appeal to us on a number of different levels. We admire the workmanship and expertise required to produce them. We respect the potentiality of violence they represent and regard them as symbols of strength and independence. Few collectibles have the immediate effect on the decor of room like military antiques. A single vase will not define a room but a great sword hanging on the wall or a samurai katana resting elegantly on its stand can define a room.

The earliest swords were made from bronze over 4,000 years ago. They were hardly bigger than the daggers that had preceded them but they were a beginning. Bronze age sword blades were generally leaf shaped, meaning somewhat wider near the tip than at pommel.

The ability to work iron was developed approximately a thousand years later but iron did not immediately replace bronze as the preferred metal for swords. In the beginning iron swords were brittle and iron was not widely available to sword makers. It would be many years before metal workers learned that by adding carbon to the iron they could produce the far superior iron alloy we now call steel.

However inferior early iron might have been to bronze it was plentiful and once understood much easier to work with. Bronze required an extra step in its manufacture because it does not occur in nature. Bronze is a mixture of copper and tin and was expensive to produce. The big step forward offered by iron was it made it possible for the first time to provide swords to an entire large army.

Once the formula for making steel was discovered bronze all but faded away as a material for making swords. By the Roman period steel had completely replaced bronze. The Chinese had replaced bronze in their swords by around 200 BC and are regarded as superior to their European equivalents for many centuries.

During the middle ages sword improvement was basically a matter of making swords longer and the development of hilts and pommels. Most ancient swords were similar to the famous Roman Gladius. Relatively short and with only the tiniest amount of protection for the wielders hands.

It was not until about the year 1000 AD that the Normans introduced a sword with a substantial cross guard. As the middle ages moved into its later periods armor developments began to put pressure on sward makers to make heavier, bigger swords. The pommels became longer allowing the wielder to use two hands and have a better chance of breaking through the improved armor.

It was also during this period that swords started to be more about slicing and hacking than stabbing. Better edges, sharpening techniques, and improved steel made this change possible. Edges were improved by an intricate process of heating to very specific temperatures and rapid cooling in oil and leaded water.

The blade was then put through a lengthy series of grindings. This process involved as many as ten different grinding stones each a little finer than the last. Once this was done a sword maker's apprentice would spend an hour or two polishing the blade to a mirror like finish.

Eventually the arms race between swords and armor would be won by gunpowder and the escalating cost of armor. The gun allowed inexpensively armed and trained gunners to easily destroy the incredibly expensive knight despite his plate mail and six feet of sword.

The huge broad swords and full body armor were gone but swords kept a place in warfare for years to come. In fact the passing of the knight's sword brought on the age of the rapier and brought new delicacy to both sword fighting and sword making. Spanish sword makers produced the first rapier towards the end of the 1500s. They also developed the basket hand guard adding a new level of artfulness to the making of swords.

As society changed the warrior class changed and had fewer and fewer opportunities to ride out on their chargers to meet in honorable combat. They did not abandon their martial behavior however. They learned to re-channel their aggression into the more elaborate ritual of the duel.

Dueling remained a part of western culture until well into the 19th century. Pistols had come to replace the sword as the primary dueling weapon by then but they never quite went away. Even in the 20th century fencing clubs in Europe maintained the practice as a sort of secret rite and mark of masculinity.

In Germany, where romanticism stayed in flower longer than other places it was not uncommon to see college men with trademark scars on their cheeks to show that they fenced seriously and did so with real blades.

In the next article we will discuss the swords from more modern eras especially ceremonially military swords that remain a part of the uniforms of nearly every military officer on Earth. We will also cover some buying tips and things to look for when considering buying antiques swords.


Loretta Crawford is a free-lance writer on a variety of topics including: food, wine and antiques. She can be reached at Content and Solutions.com.

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