Attributes needed for suitable training weapons
I recently got a chance to handle some wooden wasters that someone had bought. The finish was good and they had been nicely put together. Yet I was amazed at how badly they handled in comparison to the thing they were supposed to be replicating, a sword. As is often the case with wasters, in attempting to make the waster look like a sword, they have missed the most import thing any training weapons needs to replicate, weight and balance. Although having said that they try to make them look like a sword, I should point out that they are actually often poor visual replicas of real swords as the proportions of pommel, cross and blades are wrong, so they actually do not really look or feel like a sword. So what one ends up with is a vaguely sword shaped lump of wood, that handles like….. a lump of wood!
It is vital that any training weapon should replicate the handling properties of the weapon it is meant to be. Of all the things it needs, the least important is how much it looks like the actual weapon. For a sword, weight, balance and length are the most important statistics to be reproduced. Ideally the dimensions of the cross and also the pommel should be as accurate to the original as possible as long as at does not effect the handling. It is possible to have a training weapon which weighs more than the real thing, Roman soldiers were recorded as training with weapons made much heavier, to increase the soldiers strength and stamina when in action with the real weapons. It is also advisable in certain situations to use weapons that are lighter. However, in these cases the balance and length should not be compromised. I should also mention that how the waster/training weapon reacts when striking is important so that is behaves in the way that a steel sword wood, often wasters bounce more. Also how they respond in the Bind, when the blades are in contact, should be considered.
I should also note that the handling or heft of a weapon is also largely a personal matter. What feels “right” in the hand to one person can feel awkward to someone else. However, weight balance and length can and must be accurate
Similar problems to those found with wasters are also encountered with the steel swords that people use for training or for re-enactment. To make a weapon that appears to be sword like yet has an edge that is safe and does not take too much damage, the edge is made thicker as is the distal taper of the blade itself. All this changes the weight and balance of the weapon. Or in an attempt to make a better weight and handling weapon the blade length is reduced, which changes fighting distance and how techniques are carried out.
The impossibility of making a training sword that really looks like a sword was recognised by our ancestors as evidenced by the few training swords that survive. These are generally for use in two hands and are now commonly referred to by the historical German name federschwert. These handle almost identically to the real weapon, but when compared look very little alike.
Other materials were and can be used. Aircraft aluminium can be used for blades giving good handling, length, balance and weight while having a thicker edge.
Historically there are references to baleen being used to make the blades of training weapons or those used in tournaments. Baleen, sometimes referred to as whalebone, is actually formed of keratin, the same substance that hair, horn and fingernails are made of. It is found in the filter plates of certain types of whale. It was used historically for making many things that needed flexibility and strength, including the stays in corsets. In modern times many of the items historically made from baleen are now made of plastic or fibreglass.
Many groups use modified Kendo shinai to drill and free-play with, these are made of bamboo. Good for their original purpose they are not ideal when adapted to HEMA, though they can be made more suitable, this requires quite a lot of work.
In recent years various groups and companies have been developing training weapons in various synthetic materials. Some are no better than the worst kind of wooden wasters, but made in plastic. However the latest being produced by Red Dragon Armoury, are very good. They handle well and still manage to look like swords. While obviously a modern material, as mentioned plastic fills the role that baleen did in the past, so the jump to a new material is not too great. Bryan Tunstall, the owner of the company and also a Guild member has invested a great deal of time and money in developing the products so far and is looking to increase the number of different training weapons available in the range. Daggers, sabres, poll axes, spears amongst others are to follow. This can only be a good thing, as the need for effective training weapons of all kinds specifically designed for HEMA is vital for proper training and development of skills.
Of course the popularity of free-play and sparring has added another set of demands on how a weapon has to function. In this situation it is not only important that the weapons handles correctly but that it allows a wide range of attacks to be carried out making contact with an opponent while reducing the risk of injury. In this situation it is probable that the concerns about safety will out weigh considerations of handling. While this is understandable, it is another factor to bear in mind when considering what elements comprise ones training and which parts you compromise by the training you use
If we consider the situation from a historical point of view, a warrior of the past would in all likelihood be far more pragmatic towards the tools they used to train with. After all, the goal was to have the skills to survive in a life or death situation and therefore the need would be to have a weapon that maximised the training as a preparation for using the real weapon when it really mattered. I suspect that often people today want a training sword to look like a real sword because it adds to the escapism they get from training experience.
No one training simulator can fulfil all the varied uses that different practitioners might put them to. As such, consider the type of training that you will do. Remember that how the weapon handles is vital, how it looks is less is far less important.
At the end of the day suit the tool to the job at hand. Check with your Teacher and handle weapons to understand how they feel and function in the hand
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