October 13, 2017

Casting swords in the movies – forging a lie

Filed under: History, Media, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 11 Nov 2015

Casting swords in moulds is something often seen in the movies, and is rubbish. Here I tell you why.

There is a method of making a sword, often depicted in the movies (I give three examples in this video, but there are MANY more), whereby glowing orange iron is poured into a huge mould, and we the viewers see the fiery liquid taking the shape of the hero’s blade-to-be. The snag with this is, it’s rubbish.

Lindybeige: a channel of archaeology, ancient and medieval warfare, rants, swing dance, travelogues, evolution, and whatever else occurs to me to make.

November 14, 2016

“… he should have subtitled it, ‘500 Years of Aristocratic Testosterone Poisoning'”

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

M. Harold Page, guest-posting at Charles Stross’s blog:

Every so often, somebody posts some wistful meme about how nice it would be if duelling were legal again.

I’m increasingly less gentle in my response. Partly I don’t want non-sword folk to start to thinking of Historical European Martial Arts as some kind of Fascist death cult (we really aren’t, and we’re a very geeky and inclusive movement).

Mostly though, as a historical novelist, swordsman, and father of a teenage boy, I can tell you that duelling was — and — a bloody stupid idea.

Look, I like swords. Love them, even.

I revel in their history, evolution and context. I get a buzz from handling originals — earlier this year, I examined a well-notched sword from the Battle of Castillon and I could almost hear the English army annihilating itself by charging a superior force in entrenched positions.

Most of all, I like fighting with swords or writing about people fighting with swords; Zornhau!

All this is what leads me to think duelling is essentially a bloody stupid idea.


People talk airily about duelling as a “safety valve” or a “test of manhood”.

However, consider what happens when it’s OK and almost mandatory for young men to challenge each other to mortal combat for reasons that can best be called whimsical…

Alfred Hutton — one of the saints of the modern Historical European Martial Arts movement (real soldier, instructor of sabre to the British Army, early investigator of Medieval martial arts treatises) — wrote a wonderful book called The Sword and the Centuries in which he gathered all the anecdotes of tournaments and duelling he could find. Honestly, he should have subtitled it, “500 Years of Aristocratic Testosterone Poisoning“.

Especially if you are the parent of a young man, or have ever sustained a sword injury, the sections on French duelling culture are truly horrific. Duelling wasn’t so much a safety valve as a public health emergency.

We’re talking young men going out for a bottle of wine and coming back in a hearse because another youth caught their eye in the wrong way and they felt impelled to issue an immediate challenge.

We’re talking three versus three duels where a stranger gallantly — read bloody stupidly — offers to make up the missing third on one side. And almost everybody dies.

Reading between the lines, we’re also talking appalling peer pressure, bullying and legitimised murder — a duel is an awfully handy way of getting rid of an unwanted heir or rival.

October 25, 2016

QotD: Viking weapons and combat techniques (from historical evidence and re-creation)

Filed under: Books, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I expected to enjoy Dr. William Short’s Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques (Westholme Publishing, 2009, ISBN 978-1-59416-076-9), and I was not disappointed. I am a historical fencer and martial artist who has spent many hours sparring with weapons very similar to those Dr. Short describes, and I have long had an active interest in the Viking era. I had previously read many of the primary saga sources (such as Njal’s Saga Egil’s Saga, and the Saga of Grettir the Strong) that Dr. Short mines for information on Viking weaponscraft, but I had not realized how informative they can be when the many descriptions of fights in them are set beside each other and correlated with the archeological evidence.

For those who don’t regularly follow my blog, my wife Cathy and I train in a fighting tradition based around sword and shield, rooted in southern Italian cut-and-thrust fencing from around 1500. It is a battlefield rather than a dueling style. Our training weapons simulate cut-and-thrust swords similar in weight and length to Viking-era weapons, usually cross-hilted but occasionally basket-hilted after the manner of a schiavona; our shields are round, bossless, and slightly smaller than Viking-era shields. We also learn to fight single-sword, two-sword, and with polearms and spears. The swordmaster’s family descended from Sicilo-Norman nobles; when some obvious Renaissance Italian overlays such as the basket hilts are lain aside, the continuity of our weapons with well-attested Norman patterns and with pre-Norman Viking weapons is clear and obvious. Thus my close interest in the subject matter of Dr. Short’s book.

Dr. Short provides an invaluable service by gathering all this literary evidence and juxtaposing it with pictures and reconstructions of Viking-age weapons, and with sequences of re-enactors experimenting with replicas. He is careful and scholarly in his approach, emphasizing the limits of the evidence and the occasional flat-out contradictions between saga and archeological evidence. I was pleased that he does not shy from citing his own and his colleagues’ direct physical experience with replica weapons as evidence; indeed, at many points in the text, .the techniques they found by exploring the affordances of these weapons struck me as instantly familiar from my own fighting experience.

Though Dr. Short attempts to draw some support for his reconstructions of techniques from the earliest surviving European manuals of arms, such as the Talhoffer book and Joachim Meyer’s Art of Combat, his own warnings that these are from a much later period and addressing very different weapons are apposite. Only the most tentative sort of guesses can be justified from them, and I frankly think Dr. Short’s book would have been as strong if those references were entirely omitted. I suspect they were added mostly as a gesture aimed at mollifying academics suspicious of combat re-enactment as an investigative technique, by giving them a more conventional sort of scholarship to mull over.

Indeed, if this book has any continuing flaw, I think it’s that Dr. Short ought to trust his martial-arts experience more. He puzzles, for example, at what I consider excessive length over the question of whether Vikings used “thumb-leader” cuts with the back edge of a sword. Based on my own martial-arts experience, I think we may take it for granted that a warrior culture will explore and routinely use every affordance of its weapons. The Vikings were, by all accounts, brutally pragmatic fighters; the limits of their technique were, I am certain, set only by the limits of their weapons. Thus, the right question, in my opinion, is less “What can we prove they did?” than “What affordances are implied by the most accurate possible reconstructions of the tools they fought with?”.

As an example of this sort of thinking, I don’t think there is any room for doubt that the Viking shield was used aggressively, with an active parrying technique — and to bind opponents’ weapons. To see this, compare it to the wall shields used by Roman legionaries and also in the later Renaissance along with longswords, or with the “heater”-style jousting shields of the High Medieval period. Compared to these, everything about the Viking design – the relatively light weight, the boss, the style of the handgrip – says it was designed to move. Dr. Short documents the fact that his crew of experimental re-enactors found themselves using active shield guards (indistinguishable, by the way from my school’s); I wish he had felt the confidence to assert flat-out that this is what the Vikings did with the shield because this is what the shield clearly wants to do…

Eric S. Raymond, “Dr. William Short’s ‘Viking Weapons and Combat’: A Review”, Armed and Dangerous, 2009-08-13.

June 23, 2016

Cavalry in WW1 – Between Tradition and Machine Gun Fire I THE GREAT WAR Special

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 22 Jun 2016

This episode was supported by the Rock Island Auction Company: http://www.rockislandauction.com/

In their upcoming auction, you have the chance to acquire historic items from all ages including some of the cavalry gear seen in our video.

The break between tradition and modern warfare was probably most exemplified in the cavalry forces. Riding with shiny breastplates the sabre in hand, charging the enemy in brightly coloured uniforms. But the enemy now had machine guns, artillery and barbed wire and the cavalry role had to be redefined.

October 29, 2015

An unfortunate side-effect of popular sword-and-sorcery novels/movies/TV shows

Filed under: History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Far too many people have incredibly unrealistic views of what a “sword fight” actually looked like, thanks to fantasy novels, big-budget Hollywood movies, and TV shows. For example, one of the quickest ways to lose a swordfight? The stereotypical “spin move”. It may not get you killed every time, but it gives your opponent a great opportunity to finish the fight before you get fully turned around. Cédric Hauteville does his best to bring a bit of reality into modern day understanding about what was really involved in face-to-face combat with swords in his new documentary Back to the Source:

June 1, 2015

The secret of Damascus steel

Filed under: History, Middle East, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Esther Inglis-Arkell on the “secret ingredient” of Damascus steel:

Damascus swords are the stuff of legend – literally. When Richard the [Lionheart] faced Saladin, Richard is said to have proved his sword’s might by chopping a tree trunk in half with a single blow. Saladin took a silk scarf, threw it into the air, and let it waft down over his sword, where it was promptly cut in two.

Saladin was not the last one to get a Damascene sword, but he was nearer to the last than to the first. Eventually, the knowledge died out, and people have been trying to recreate the swords ever since. This was obviously a step backwards in terms of science, but people didn’t realize how much of a step back until the early 2000s. When scientists took a look at the swords, they found carbon nanotubes and nanowires embedded in them.

As far as we can tell, the nanotubes were created by getting the impurity levels right in the steel-making process. Damascus steel is badly-named, as it originally comes from India. It has a 1.5 percent carbon impurity level, and is commonly known as Wootz steel – which, arguably, is an even worse name. The steel forms a banded structure. There’s a central band of Fe3C, an iron and carbon combination that is tellingly named cementite, surrounded by softer steel. As the sword is made, the maker cris-crosses these bands carefully, making a matrix of hard and soft that leaves the sword both strong and flexible. At the end of the process, the maker pours acid on the sword. This eats away some of the softer steel, but leaves the nanotubes and nanowires, and creates an ultra-strong, sharp outer layer. It also brings out a swirling pattern of dark and light bands that marks it as a Damascus sword.

January 11, 2015

Sport fencing no longer teaches swordsmanship – HEMA does

Filed under: History, Sports — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:19

I’ve given (shorter and less detailed) variants of this argument many times. I agree with pretty much everything he says here:

I started to learn sport fencing (or “Olympic-style”) as a child in England. My parents were both long-time fencers, so one of my earliest memories is from around age three or four, standing in our tiny backyard, trying to learn basic parries with a foil. My father had been experimenting with bringing in a form of rapier and dagger at his fencing club, but there were no reasonable simulation rapiers on the market in those days, so the default equipment was a sabre and a broken-off foil as a dagger. Let’s just say that the idea was very popular in the club, but the implementation failed to energize many because the equipment wasn’t all that close to representative: the weapons were far too light and any attempt to use historical methods was doomed because the swordplay lacked the momentum of full-sized/full-weight rapiers. Things that worked fantastically well with the modern weapons would get you deader than dead using proper historical weaponry.

Orthopedic foil and epee gripsI gave up sport fencing as a hobby around the time that orthopedic grips and electrical scoring came in … as the man says in the video above, it became too much like electric tag and too little like historical swordplay. Instead of being relatively straight or slightly curved, orthopedic grips looked rather like what would happen if you squeezed a ball of soft coloured clay in your hand. I hated the feel of them, but other fencers at my club loved them. The electrical scoring system of the day required each fencer to wear an over-jacket covering the valid target area, and trail along a cable attached to the back of the over-jacket. The matching foil had a socket on the inside of the guard for attaching the cable to the other side of the scoring circuit. When the tip of the foil hit the conductive surface of the opponent’s over-jacket, the circuit was completed and a point would be scored.

It was clumsy and awkward, and didn’t feel much like a swordfight. I pretty much gave up the foil and switched to sabre, for they didn’t yet have a working electric system for sabre fighting, so you didn’t need to get hooked up to the machine just to fight a bout. When they got that little problem fixed, I’d already given up sport fencing.

The SCA finally adopted rapier fencing and the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) movement arrived well after I’d given up sport fencing, and I’ve enjoyed the SCA’s rapier combat quite a bit (although I tend to go inactive for a year or two, then go back for a similar length of time … I may not improve that way, but it’s still fun). More serious fencers and those interested in a wider range of styles end up joining HEMA organizations, where I’m told they take things much more seriously. I can’t say from personal experience, as I only visited a Toronto HEMA group once and most of the members there were working on much earlier styles of swordplay (like longsword) than I was interested in at the time.

H/T to Brendan McKenna for the link to the video.

June 19, 2014

QotD: You (probably) drive on the wrong side of the road

Filed under: History, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:29

The heart is (or to be exact, appears to be) on the left side of the body. In the more primitive form of warfare some form of shield is therefore used to protect the left side, leaving the offensive weapon to be held in the right hand. The normal offensive weapon was the sword, worn in a scabbard or sheath. If the sword was to be wielded in the right hand, the scabbard would have to be worn on the left side. With a scabbard worn on the left, it became physically impossible to mount a horse on the off side unless intending to face the tail — which was not the normal practice. But if you mount on the near side, you will want to have your horse on the left of the road, so that you are clear of the traffic while mounting. It therefore becomes natural and proper to keep to the left, the contrary practice (as adopted in some backward countries) being totally opposed to all the deepest historical instincts. Free of arbitrary traffic rules the normal human being swings to the left.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Personality Screen, Or The Cocktail Formula”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

July 25, 2012

Smartphone swordfight: what could possibly go wrong?

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:06

Jacob Siegal reports on a new (but not publicly available) smartphone app:

FAR can accurately determine the distance between two smartphones by measuring the time it takes for one sound emitted from one phone to reach the speaker of another.

The first implementation of FAR is an application called SwordFight, which is exactly what it sounds like. Two smartphone owners stand across from each other, jabbing at each other’s phones in order to score a hit. A player has to strike within 15 centimeters to score, causing the other player to lose a point. Using FAR, along with the accelerometer and digital compass, the phones not only keep track of their distance from one another, but can determine which player is attacking, and which player has been struck.

Microsoft is dubbing this subgenre of gaming Mobile Motion Games, and it can only be accomplished with the supreme accuracy of the FAR sound-ranging scheme. Considering the mass hysteria in the gaming world surrounding motion devices, this project does not come as much of a surprise. Nonetheless, I still desperately want to wave an imaginary sword around for a few minutes and know for sure who won.

June 13, 2012


Filed under: Gaming, Media, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Neal Stephenson wants your money to help him create a realistic sword fighting game:

Hi, Neal Stephenson here. My career as an author of science and historical fiction has turned me into a swordsmanship geek. As such, I’m dissatisfied with how swordfighting is portrayed in existing video games. These could be so much more fun than they are. Time for a revolution.

In the last couple of years, affordable new gear has come on the market that makes it possible to move, and control a swordfighter’s actions, in a much more intuitive way than pulling a plastic trigger or pounding a key on a keyboard. So it’s time to step back, dump the tired conventions that have grown up around trigger-based sword games, and build something that will enable players to inhabit the mind, body, and world of a real swordfighter.

H/T to Tom Kelley for the link.

February 28, 2011

“SwordFit” – combining western martial arts with fitness classes

Filed under: Cancon, Health, Sports — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 09:02

This sounds like an excellent idea:

Since Devon Boorman opened the Academie Duello Centre for Swordplay in Vancouver seven years ago, he’s taught actors, fans of medieval weapons as well as bankers and office workers. Like an action-oriented Pilates class, the Western martial art of swordplay requires the grace of a ballet dancer with the strength of a warrior. It’s not about building muscle mass, as in weight-lifting, but about building plyometric — that is, explosive — strength.

But last fall, he added a new hybrid to his lineup.

The 90-minute SwordFit workout at Academie Duello is designed to be a mix of technical and cross-training, and features two instructors — one for swordplay and one for general fitness. Meghan O’Connell, the fitness instructor, has a background in boxing and has based many of the exercises on boxing training circuits.

[. . .]

“Swordplay makes you feel graceful and powerful at the same time — like dance,” Mr. Boorman says. It strengthens arms and shoulders, and tones the core. “If you relax your core,” he says, “your posture will crumple and you will lose your balance.”

Ms. Thomas also enjoys the couples aspect to the class. “I like the fact that we can take turns being the attacker and the defender,” she says. “It really gets a lot of frustration out.”

Mr. Thom agrees. “There’s something so visceral and revitalizing about the clanging of the swords.”

H/T to Elizabeth for the link.

February 12, 2011

Just an ordinary traffic accident, until the sword fight breaks out

Filed under: Law, Randomness — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:08

By way of David Stamper’s Facebook update, a sad story of how ordinary attempted vehicular homicide turned into . . . a sword fight:

A hit-and-run collision Wednesday followed by a brief sword fight led police to arrest a 25-year-old man for assault.

About 4 p.m., the Sunnyside man spotted a 27-year-old rival and intentionally rammed his 1981 Ford F-150 pickup into the man’s vehicle as he backed out of his driveway in the 100 block of South 11th Street, said Charlotte Hinderlider, Sunnyside police spokeswoman.

The alleged assailant brandished a sword, swinging it at his enemy, who had climbed out of his own vehicle, Hinderlider said.

The suspect fell, giving the victim time to pick up a machete that happened to be laying in his yard and defend himself from his alleged attacker, Hinderlider said. Meanwhile, the victim’s mother, still in the vehicle, dialed 9-1-1 from her cellular phone.

You can’t really call yourself a swordsman if your intended victim can pick up a machete that “happened to be laying in his yard” and successfully defend himself. The report doesn’t spell out the actual weapon used, but it doesn’t seem to show that the attacker actually knew what the hell to do with whatever kind of sword he was using.

For those of you following along at home: you wound with the edge, but you kill with the point. The wounds may be painful, nasty, and gruesome, but if you’re trying to kill someone, the sword is a thrusting weapon, not a slashing weapon.

July 22, 2010

Swordplay is hard work

Filed under: History, Sports — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:21

Peter Saltsman visits Toronto’s Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts (AEMMA) and finds that there’s not much “play” when you’re just starting to learn how to wield a sword:

I was hoping this courageous group of historians and hobbyists could teach me to fight like they do in movies such as Robin Hood, Macbeth or the new Pillars of the Earth series. In the movies, it looks so easy. The sword fights I know are the perfect harmony of choreographed bravado, hyperbolic grunting and dramatic pauses for someone to say “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

To the disappointment of my eight-year-old self, real medieval combat is nothing like that.

“They’re not really trying to hit each other,” says Cal Rekuta, a Senior Free Scholar at AEMMA, of cinematic battles. “Stage fighting is the art of looking dangerous. We’re actually studying how it was dangerous.”

I was in over my head. When a man dressed in a full suit of chain-mail armour — armour he weaved himself — talks about danger, he probably means it.

I visited AEMMA once, several years ago. It was quite an enjoyable experience, but I’m more interested in later-period swordwork than most of their membership at that time.

July 3, 2010

More swordwork today

Filed under: Randomness, Sports — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:26

As I expected, the larger turnout of fencers yesterday prevented me from repeating as high a finish as the last two tournaments, but there’s more happening today. The morning tournament was a double-elimination, but the afternoon was a much briefer single-elimination. At least with double-elimination, you can recover from a mistake (theoretically).

July 2, 2010

Off to do some swordwork

Filed under: Randomness, Sports — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:12

There’s a big SCA event literally down the street from us today, so I’m off to do some rapier fencing. The last two tournaments I entered went very well for me (first place and second place), even though they were more than a year apart. I doubt I’ll do so well today: lots more competition including folks I’ve never fought before. Still, it should be a lot of fun.

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