By John Clements
There is a truth to this modern-day study of swords that eludes many students and enthusiasts. It is a simple fact that virtually no one ever gets to use a quality sharp blade full force on realistic target materials. That is, to cut, cleave, chop, hack, slice, and slash against portions of raw meat and bone positioned to simulate a historical encounter. For that matter, few get to experiment by striking in this way at accurate reconstructions of various hard and soft armors, either.
So, even as efforts are made to have the most accurate replica blades and exercise with them in the most genuine manner possible using a sound understanding of authentic techniques and movements, in terms of the actual results that such violent motions would have produced there is arguably much that is missed. Just how it is that sword blades of different shapes and widths, different cross-sectional geometries and edge-bevels, and different weights and curvatures intertwine such elements to produce different traumatic effects in close combat is still a huge unknown. Ironically, insight into some of these lessons can be gained from the most unexpected of places with which nearly everyone has some ordinary experience: your kitchen.
If we compare different kinds of swords to the different kinds of knives one might commonly find in a typical kitchen, the reasons why there are so many variations and kinds of swords becomes clearer. In a modern kitchen you will find many types of knives and cutting implements. Most everyone understands this and has some experience in how each of these is designed for a particular purpose and meets a specialized role. You might have a large butcher knife, a serrated steak-knife, a small paring-knife, a blunt butter knife, a heavy meat-cleaver, and a sharp carving knife. Some of these blades will be wider, others will be thinner, some will be straight or curved, some exceptionally keen, and others will have rounded or tapered points. There is a best tool for each job and it’s taken a long time for each tool to be designed as a specialized blade for use with a skilled hand.
Nearly everyone has at one time or another experienced the results of using the wrong knife for the wrong job. When you’re using a tool that’s the wrong shape or one that’s not sharp enough anymore you don’t get good results. And, it makes your work harder. You don’t need to carve a tomato with a meat cleaver or chop with a serrated knife and you don’t really want to slice raw meat with a bread knife. On top of this, many of us have experienced what happens when our kitchen knives become dull and just don’t perform as well as they used to.
Obviously, it takes a certain skill to learn how to use each particular implement in their proper manner. While any one can be used by novices (or total incompetents), just as with fighting blades, they find their best application when being guided by a skilled expert. Historically speaking, swords are very similar to this. Whereas kitchen knives are all designed to work on food, swords were all designed to work on opponents. But, with either there are different tools used somewhat differently. Each is a compromise in design better at some things and not others.
The only real difference, we might say, is that today it’s much easier to obtain high quality reliable kitchen implements, whereas finding an accurate and trustworthy sword that is an authentic replica of a historical model is more difficult. On top of this, finding qualified instruction in how to handle them effectively can be just as daunting. After all, we do a lot of cooking and preparing of food nowadays but very little actual lethal swordplay.
About the author:
A recognized international expert, John Clements is one of the world’s foremost instructors of Medieval and Renaissance fighting arts. Having pursued the craft since 1980, he has taught and lectured in 17 countries.