Review: Swordsmithy Sabres

Late 19th/Early 20th Century Austro-Hungarian Training Sabre 

Swordsmithy, Prague, Czechia 

http://www.swordsmithy.com/ 

 

SPECS: 
Total Length: 104.14cm/41” 

Blade Length: 86.36cm/34” 
Blade Width: 15mm/.59” 

Grip Length: 12.7cm/5” [mid-grip width 2.5cm/.98”] 

Guard Width at Widest: 9cm/3.54”; at mid-Knucklebow, 3cm/1.18” 

POB: 9.5cm/3.74” 

Weight: 663g/1.46lbs 

Materials: steel, wood, leather 

 

I had the privilege to borrow one of these excellent sabres in October 2021 at SabreSlash in Prague, Czech Republic, for several days. For handling, my portion of teaching day provided me a great opportunity to assess balance, heft, and nimbleness. Thanks to a bad leg which acted up, I was unable to bout as much as I should have liked, but did bout with one the redoubtable reenactors from Warsaw, Poland, Jaroslaw Kubacki from Kompania Czarnej Szabli (Black Sabre Company). As the photo demonstrates, he was using a larger sabre than I was, but the Swordsmithy sabre held its own well. In brief, these are fantastic sabres, well worth the cost (they’re handmade) and wait.

Handling

Despite ”HEMA’s” obsession with beefy, heavy sabres, most sabres intended for more than chopping from the saddle were lighter and more nimble than our trainers. J. Christoph Amberger provided a nice, small survey in an article in Fencer’s Quarterly Magazine that concluded that the difference between say Italian “featherweight” sabres and “other, heavier German-made broadswords” was about as much as a block of chocolate. Humor aside, his sample ranged from 1350 to 300g for the period between 1780 and 2000. Anecdotally, the historical examples I own or have held confirm that most sabres were not the clubs modern reproductions would have us think. Swordsmithy sabres, because they are handmade, vary slightly in weight, but the six in my order weighed on average 660g, which is within the typical range for sabres of this period. [1]

The balance is perfect for Radaellian/late period Italian sabre, but will work equally well for many other traditions. The model for these sabres is a Viennese sabre similar to what we see in Luigi Barbasetti’s The Art of the Sabre and Epee; it was a common trainer used in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. [2] My class at SabreSlash focused on various uses for the molinelli, the elbow-driven cuts that are a hallmark of this system. The Swordsmithy sabres performed perfectly, whether for molinelli as exercise or as offensive or defensive maneuvers.

Sabre in Barbasetti, courtesy Ars Dimicatoria, CZ

One of the best features of these sabres are the grips. They are large enough for normal hands, a clear advantage on most options out there today, and comfortable. The slight swell mid-grip makes for good purchase on the grip, and the ribbed leather seats nicely against the glove. The steel backstrap is solid and close to if not identical to original examples. The only change I might suggest is to score the portion where the thumb rests with some manner of cross-hatching to make one’s grasp that much more secure. However, so long as one wears a glove there’s no need for cross-hatching. The Swordsmithy’s grip is my favorite of all the options available now.

Durability & Performance

There’s no criticism I can make about the way these sabres handle and hold up in use. They’re stout, well-made, and perform equally well against different sabres as well as when a matched pair. It is saying something that Michael Knazko, one of the people behind Swordsmithy Sabres, has used the same six weapons in the tournament portion of SabreSlash three years running. I challenge most other events to make such a boast. [3] 
 

The one major difference with these sabres is the hardness of the blades. Some fencers will balk at this, because most other options are made in such a way that when a sabre bends badly that’s that; we replace the blade. Swordsmithy sabres, however, are so constructed that one can beat the blade back into shape. I have seen this myself: one of the background sounds at SabreSlash is the ringing of Michael’s hammer as he beats a sabre back into shape on a lead plate (wood works too). There is an art to this, but it is easily learned and with practice easy to do. It is, however, more labor than many fencers expect or may wish to take on, though to be honest much of this depends on how they are used. Tournaments, for example, tend to be higher stress than practices, and some fencers struggle to fight with control; they hit harder and the weapons take more abuse. This matters. The fact that Michael has used the same six sabres, in such a high stress environment, speaks volumes for the design Swordsmithy has selected. 

 
The guard is stout, strong, and well-shaped. They’re ambidextrous, a real plus for those of us who fence right and left-handed, and wide enough—assuming good structure–more than ample to cover the hand when parrying. On a personal note, I really like the hammer marks barely visible on the inside of the guard. The thickness is perfect and more than sufficient to parry a hard blow. 

The blade length is just right for most systems, and the width well within historical parameters. The tip is constructed for safety, being wide enough that it’s extremely unlikely to pierce safety equipment. [4] I prefer spatulate tips, but even without this these blades—assuming normal practice–more than meet safety requirements. 

Conclusion

Swordsmithy sabres are worth the cost. In the US, they go for about $390 which is expensive compared to the offerings from popular options such as Hanwei. They are, however, better made, and handmade, and this explains the price. Castille Armory’s “Italian Dueling Sabre” is, at the time of writing, $490; Darkwood’s sabres are $360. [5] Until I handled the Swordsmithy sabres the Castille was my favorite–they’re good blades and the guards, while undished, stout.  

My go-to now, however, is this Czech-made trainer. They are not inexpensive, and the temper on the blade requires more work on part of the fencer, but in terms of longevity alone these blades will last longer than most others I’ve used, and, with fewer problems. Swordsmithy sabres are worth the cost.

On a side note, shipping in and out of Czechia can be pricey, but ordering more than one at a time (two friends and I went in on an order) helps. Michael packs these weapons well and they arrived far faster than I expected.

Notes:

[1] See J. Christoph Amberger, “Inference and Imposition: Anachronism in Fencing Historiography,” in Fencer’s Quarterly Magazine/FQM (Summer 2004): 25-28. Amberger sampled 17 weapons (p. 26), the heaviest at 1350, the lightest at 300, with an average of 682g.

“The weight difference between the Radaelli and the lightest German Fechtsäbel–exported in large quantities to and used in Britain throughout the late 19th century as practice ‘broadsword,’ is only 40g. The much-vaunted 1796-model British Light Cavalry sabre weighs in at only 80g more. And the weight difference between the Italian ‘featherweight’ and other, heavier German-made broadswords and the model 1899 British Gymnasia Pattern practice sword corresponds to that of a bar of Milka chocolate.” [26]

A more recent tally, the spreadsheet maintained by Maestro Kevin Murakoshi, examines both historical examples and modern reproduction trainers, and here too we see more sabres in the 600-800g range. The examples over 1000g are all trooper sabres and thus not so much meant for “fencing” as braining retreating infantrymen.

[2] Luigi Barbasetti, The Art of the Sabre and Epee (1936), was published earlier in German (1899) and Italian. NB: my thanks to Chris Holzman for the correction as to type.

[3] In contrast, at an open sabre tournament in 2017 multiple Hanwei and Coldsteel sabres were broken; this was also the first time I’d seen anyone obtain a concussion in sabre.  
 

[4] I say ”unlikely,” becauase it depends on how one fences. In Radaellian sabre we use the point a lot, but learn in such a way to minimize risk. Any sabre might potentially damage someone or equipment. Hanwei’s ”Hutton” sabre and Darkwood’s ”dueling” sabre blade both present a danger, the first because it’s tip is pointed, the second because the tip is too thin and is not wide enough. Twice I have had a DW blace pierce a glove while giving lessons.

[5] Prices accurate as of 3 July 2022.

Tool or Technique?

The excellent Carlo Parisi, whom I only recently met while in the Czech Republic, is well-known for his intriguing videos. Whether one agrees with his conclusions or not he gets one thinking, gets people talking, and asks a lot of the questions that need to be asked. In his latest post he tackles the issue of s2000 sabre blades and historical fencing—does using the Olympic weight weapon adversely affect one’s practice?

https://youtu.be/jtCLbMRElEI

What it comes down to is technique, to how we use that stick or in this case Olympic sabre (an extremely light, flexible stick). It’s not that there aren’t problems with the s2000, because there are, but in some important ways these can be mitigated through technique. For cons, the blade is way too light and flexible, and allows one to perform actions either impossible or unwise with a blade of suitable historical weight. Worse, it is an easy tool to manipulate for favorable scoring—the example I cite most often is whip-over. The FIE never dealt with this properly and never will. Too many careers have been made via these dubious maneuvers.

The pros, however, are worth considering. I use s2000s myself and have found them useful for historical practice. For one, they are inexpensive compared to trainers designed for period fencing. Where one will spend $200 or more (usually more) for the offerings of Hanwei, Coldsteel, Kvetun, Regenyei, Blackfencer, Darkwood, or Castille, an Olympic sabre can be had for less than $50. Their weight makes them a decent choice for children, especially with a shorter blade, and for those not yet used to the heft of weapons 650g or more (Olympic sabres cannot be more than 500g and these days are never in danger of passing 400). The cost and weight make them ideal for introductory classes.

Carlo’s conclusion, much like my own, is that it doesn’t have to. One can practice “HEMA” just fine with the s2000, just as one can with a stick, synthetic, or some ersatz trainer. After all, in many parts of the world, from Poland to Algeria, from the Georgian highlands to England’s heaths, sticks in one form or another have often served as training tools. Egyptian paintings reveal some of the earliest depictions, though the use of the stick as trainer and weapon obviously predates their tenure. [1]

Form or Substance

Substance, the tool, can matter, and eventually the historical fencer should spend some time with appropriate weapons for the system they study. [2] This said, if one lacks historically inspired tools there is plenty one can do with the s2000 until they acquire one. Critical in this is source material, the body of texts, because unless one is working from a living tradition or an offshoot of one, the surviving printed word is all we have to guide us. Fencing is more than the weapon one has in hand—it’s the sum of how one moves, thinks, acts, reacts, and manipulates the weapon in time and space. This is an old concept and universal. We see it in the thought of Fiore dei Liberi (ca. 1410 CE) as well as in many East Asian systems to name only two examples. By definition historical fencing means focus on the sources in some fashion.

For a real-world example I can cite one of my students. He’s a teenager and has worked with me for about three years now. Ninety-nine percent of the time we have used s2000s. The system we spend the most time on is Radaellian sabre which uses the elbow as axis for the rotation of cuts. One doesn’t need to use the elbow to move this weapon, but we do. The s2000 is not weighted properly for it, we’re not trying to avoid our mount or the trooper next to us, and we’re not trying to cut through the shakos or woolen coats of retreating infantrymen. But, this system uses the elbow so we do.

Occasionally I have him try a technique, action, or set of actions with curved sabres copied from original blades, a 16mm weighing 704 and a 20mm of 745g. As he grows stronger we will use these more and more until they are as comfortable for him as the s2000. Significantly, while stamina using heavier weapons is an issue, his technique is not—he doesn’t change what he’s doing, and, he doesn’t have to. This doesn’t mean that the blades move the same way, they don’t, but because his technique is correct the more forward weight of the 16 and 20mm doesn’t trouble him. When he first held one, he noticed the difference, asked about it, and I told him that he will cut the same way. A few minutes of a partner drill with molinelli and he had adjusted.

Practice as You are Able

Carlo’s demonstration in this video highlights the importance of technique. In many of his videos he also shows ingenious ways to work with what one has to hand. What he shows may not work for you, but the creativity, drive, and commitment to study, drill, and practice is something we should all aspire to. If you have Olympic tools and want to work on historical material, grab sources and go for it. Focus on technique, get help if you need it, and have fun.

NOTES:

[1] Polish youths used wooden trainers in a game called palcaty (cf. https://hroarr.com/article/the-sabers-many-travels-the-origins-of-the-cross-cutting-art/); tahtib and Maghrebi stick fighting in North African nations reflects centuries of similar games or dances meant to impart practical skills; there are photos, accounts, and oral histories that indicate that boys in Khevsureti and other highland areas of Georgia used wooden trainers, for both pari (buckler) and kmali (the longer sword); and well-known in “HEMA” circles English singlestick, once a pastime and popular method of prize-fighting, continues to find many fans.

[2] In an earlier post, “Piste and Page (Part I)” [15 Jan., 2021] I related the experiments, arguments, and attempts my comrade Jon Tarantino and I made to convince fellow fencers and coaches that a heavier, slightly stiffer, more closely related to historical blades was the answer to the problems plaguing Olympic sabre in the mid-1990s. As we learned then, and as most historical fencers know, using weapons of period weight and handling provides insights that are sometimes hard to appreciate if one only uses one style of weapon. As much as one can do with the s2000, it doesn’t give one a feel for the more forward weight of cavalry sabres or the more back-weighted heft of an Insular broadswords.