What Makes a Good Sword?
Is it the steel, the geometry, the furniture or the feel? I think it’s the sum of all parts that makes a sword inherently good. But let’s not forget the balance which is the single most important variable in the construction of any weapon.
It’s similar to the sails on a sailboat, since it’s the sails that determine how smoothly the boat can be handled. Even a perfectly balanced, forged and tempered blade won’t cut butter if the owner doesn’t know how to use it correctly. In other words, what separates one sword from another is the person who’s using it.
Swords available to those who practice Chinese martial arts today are almost always mass-produced. These swords and other items sold through many dealers online and in magazines hardly qualify as weapons. The majority of them are priced at the $50-to-$300 range and mostly constructed of 420 stainless steel - considered to be very cheap and very soft. Even the sharpened versions are rarely, if ever, designed to withstand a strong impact from cutting hard targets. That’s because most of these swords are designed to be used for forms training and nothing more than that.
Recently, Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming conducted a sword camp/workshop at the YMAA California Retreat Center and I was lucky enough to attend. During the camp, we cleared brush, got to know the other members of the camp and practiced our swordsmanship. The 16 participants and I each used sword ranging in price from $50-to-$200. Those swords took some punishment. However, in all fairness to the manufacturer, I will not name models, companies or retailers. Usually, a company provides the product to the author of the review. But this was not the case. So my reviews will be honest and forthright, and include no special bias towards a manufacturer.
The targets for the tests were 1 ½" thick hard wood and tan oak logs. We hacked away at them again and again, some with more success than others. The two higher priced swords performed a little better than the other fourteen, although they were all pretty much the same sword with a slightly different design. The two higher priced blades were made of high carbon steel, which were much better than stainless for a regular use.
The handles on these two higher-priced swords were affixed with an epoxy resin and boasted decent fittings. The other fourteen looked exactly the same once the fittings were removed, overly flexible blades, rat tail tangs and a cheap fittings adorned the low end blades.
After two weeks of abuse, all of our swords were pretty battered, even the high carbon ones. The most common damage occurred on the blade. The edges just couldn’t stand up to the impact. The other problem was the handles. Every one of them turned on the tang by the end of the camp. Here’s where it pays to be cautious: the handles on these swords could fail even during forms training and care should be taken to inspect the sword before and after each use.
Things to consider when shopping for a sword
- Purpose (will it hang on the wall or be used for forms or cutting).
- Your school or style of martial arts.
- Steel types (high carbon steel is easier to sharpen and holds an edge longer than most stainless steel which is usually hard to sharpen).
- Furniture (looks are more important to some than others).
- The most important thing to remember is that a “swordsman or woman is not their sword.”
What I think makes a good sword
- Traditional construction methods and materials.
- Full Tang construction.
The advantages of training with these swords: the flexible steel won’t chip or crack and send a piece of debris flying through the air. This is a possibility with a tempered steel blade, or even a wooden sword. The other advantage is the amount of accuracy and the quality of form one needs to cut well with these swords. The main purpose of these swords is forms training. That should always be considered when you decide to cut something with a sword of this quality. Most likely the sword will be destroyed. A sword actually intended for the rigorous use of cutting practice can cost from $250 (on the internet), for a production sword, to up to $5,000 or more, for a hand made sword.
The best thing about modern production swords is that they’re not antiques and can actually be used in training. Before you buy any sword (or other weapon) you should consult your instructor and/or classmates. Try to handle as many different types of swords as you can, taking into consideration your style and body type. This way, you should be able to find a sword to fit you and your budget. There are many good blades out there for the martial artist and diligent research will surely be rewarded. But remember the lesson of the day: you get what you pay for.
Justin Bowman, resides in Humboldt, CA, and has helped build the YMAA Retreat Center. He is an avid practitioner of blade martial arts and regularly attends Dr. Yang's training and teaching at the Retreat Center.