Swords: How to discern between "For Display Only" & "Functional" ??

I do not own any swords, but I have always had an admiration for them.

The thing that concerns me is: They seem to be “a-dime-dozen” in the fact that they are heavily sold/promoted on tv shopping networks, catalogs, and many “bargain-specialty” shops.

How can you tell the difference between a real sword and fake-display one?

I’m under the impression that many of these “cheap-readily-available” swords wouldn’t hold up, or do much damage, under real defensive / offensive use.

If zombies ever attack, I don’t want to take a swing at one with a “knockoff” sword and have the blade fly out of the handle, leaving me with a useless stub. :eek: :smiley:

Somewhat related thread

Frost Cutlery knife sets as seen on TV! Is it a deal?

Never mind that was the wrong thread

As an answer to the implied subquestion of whether display swords are particularly inferior: yes. I have a pair of display swords from the Excalibur hotel, and hitting one against the other, blade to blade resulted in about a 3-4 millimeter indent on either blade of the contour of the other’s blade. If that happened with real swords, you would have to toss your one after every battle.

Against anything living of course, they would still be perfectly dangerous and this is not recommended.

It’s my understanding that actually, this is what would happen to real swords in a battle; smashing two blade edges together is just going to damage them, unless they’re made of unobtainium. Part of the problem might be the unrealistic protracted ching ching sword battles in the movies.

Display swords are stainless steel - usually so brittle that they won’t withstand one good block. Full combat swords are carbon steel: they absorb impacts far better, although you can’t put so sharp an edge on one.

Unless, of course, you learn to fend off properly. Which means with the side or the blunter, thicker lower part of the sword (the part above the handle).

I am certain they would get chinks, but not notches. Literally, with the display ones, you would have to replace the sword after a battle. And the last time I hit those things was when my friend and I were kids–as full grown muscular men, having one of the two get chopped fully in half wouldn’t seen impractical.

I forgot to mention that there is no edge on the Excalibur swords, which might be confusing you. While they do get thinner towards the edge, they are still about a millimeter thick at the edge. Taking a chunk out of a sharpened edge certainly, but with these, being able to do that much damage to one another is unfeasible for multiple battles, let alone passing down your weapon to further generations (though I would still have to imagine that they had the blade reforged periodically for heirloom weapons.)

I think the OP was specifically asking about the undead, though. Would it still work for them?

The answer can be a bit complex, but luckily there are many different vendors around the world whom actually care about the performance and quality of their swords and historical weapons and cater to the growing community of historical martial artists out there (I’ll mention a few of them at the end of this post).

So how can you tell the difference between a real sword and an SOL (sword like object)? The best way is to study and handle historical pieces, or if that is not possible, then get your hands on a quality modern replica and read up on what is expected of a sword.

There are some aspects of a historically accurate swords that must be present in a modern replica in order for it to perform well. What follows pertains mostly to European swords, though much of it wil apply to other (asian) swords as well.

1 - A strong, solid Tang. The tang is the part of the sword that drives through the cross guard and into the handle, all the way to the pommel. This piece should be part of the same piece of metal that the blade is made out of. It should not be welded on, and it should be substantial, this is critical, as the tang tends to receive the most stress. A typical ‘feature’ of an SOL is the so called ‘rat tail’ tang. A small, thin rod of metal welded to the blade that goes through the handle. These things tend to brake at the tang and send the blade airborn with possibly dangerous consequences. The shape of the tang is also important.

  1. The crossguard, handle, and pommel. They should feel sturdy and secure. The assembly should not rattle or loosen. The handle shoudl allow perfect alignment of the blade so that the edge can be presented. The pommel should provide a measured counterbalance to the blade giving you a feel of lightness when cutting with the weapon. If the piece is historically accurate the guard and pommel should be wedged in place, and the tang hot peened, and not threaded through. Though threading is fine, and is occasionally seen in historical pieces (and in the Japanese Katana), the afore mentioned assembly is simply better IMHO.

  2. Blade geometry (that is profile and distal taper, as well as edge geometry) is vital to the performance of the sword. In fact it will determine the expected function of the weapon. A good cutter might have a drastic distal taper, and a wide cross section with a good sized fuller. A sword more geared towards the thrust might have a steep profile taper and a rigid geometry with a thick riser. Do your homework here, and see what appeals to you. Check out Oakeshotts Typology for historical examples of blade design. The edge geometry is also extremely important and will determine cutting performance. There are many designs, some more historically accurate than others. One thing to keep in mind is that swords do not need to be razor sharp. In fact, this tends to be bad, as it will weaken the edge, making it brittle and susceptable to serious damage. A sword shoudl be sharp, but not too sharp! And that is a flaw of many modern replicas that cater to people interested only in cutting very light targets like pool noodles or water jugs.

  3. Weight and balance are also crucial. Swords did not weigh 10 pounds, so if it’s too heavy it is probably an SLO. A typical longsword (also called a hand and a half) might weigh from 2.5 to 4 pounds for a large specimen. An arming sword will weigh a bit less than that. Ever the Great dopplehanders fo the renaissance (at least those meant to be used on the field and not for ceremony) would not have weighed more than 7 pounds. A sword should feel ‘alive’ in your hands. A cutter shoudl scream to you “Cut somethign already!!” as soon as you hold it. This is, as you might have guessed, a feeling that develops from handling lots of quality of weapons. It’s hard for a beginner to tell when a sword is welle balanced and well made by just holding it and using it. But it certainly can’t hurt!

  4. Materials are also of importance. Stainless steel is too brittle to be of any good use in making weapons. It CAN be made useful by proper heat treatment and smelting, etc, but this is an extremely expensive process, and I, for one, don’t know anyone who does it. High carbon steel is what is usually used, and there are many varieties to choose from. It should be properly heat treated and tempered as well. This is very important! A sword that lacks proper heat treatment is a liability.

There you go, those are some of the important factors you should consider when shopping for a sword. And here are some quality vendors you might want to consider (buit look around, there are many more):


As for edge on edge banging of swords, it was not done in the 90 degree, static way it is seen in the movies. That is not only martially unsound, but certainly detrimental to your sword.

Typically the flat is used agasint the edge, or the edge against the flat, or should the edge meet, they do so at an angle, and typically near the strong. Even so, edge to edge constact was minimized and avoided when possible.

Kinthalis thanks for the very informative post! It was very interesting.

Unfortunately, I don’t understand much of it, as I know absolutely diddly-squat about swords. Would you recap in layman’s terms, please?

I was being a bit humourous. If I had a sword, I couldn’t be going around hacking up the living. That’s frowned upon in most places. :slight_smile:

What specifically are you having trouble with?

Here’s a diagram of a few swords that should help clarify some of the terminology I used above: Anatomy of the Sword -- myArmoury.com

Display swords may be brittle but not necessarily because they’re made of stainless steel. Stainless steel can be quite tough and flexible, depending upon the alloy and the heat treatment.

If you are planning on purchasing one, make sure that the seller or manufacturer states precisely the specs of the blade (tang method, fastening method, metal, edge, etc.) It should be very clear that you are getting what you intend, be it display or function. It is almost guaranteed that anything bought in a shopping mall cutlery store will be for display purposes only.

You also don’t need to pay a lot for a “real” combat quality sword, you just need to shop around.

My favorites are at kris cutlery

[snickering hijack]

Wow, that unobtainium soiunds great! Where can I get some?



Yes, prices are something to watch out for. A decent quality replica shoudl go from about $250 to $500. Excellent replicas will run you from $500 to $1250 or so, and you should expect a lot from them. Custom jobs might fall in this range, or might go even higher depending on what you want.

Thanks, Kinthalis, that anatomy chart helps a lot.

The part I am having a bit of “trouble” with is:

It appears that if someone is unknowledged in swords, (as I am) is going to invest in buying a real sword, that person has some considerable “homework” to do, beforehand. I suppose that’s only reasonable, as one should/would do the same before buying anything of higher-quality. I don’t think we will find sword reviews in Consumer Reports, though. lol

I suppose I am just being lazy, but I was kind of hoping there would be a relatively “effortless” way of discerning & selecting a real sword.

IOW, Comparitively and figuratively speaking, (subjectivity aside!) one doesn’t have to know a lot about cars to know that a Yugo is total crap, and a Rolls Royce is high-quality. Hopefully, you just know.

Kinthalis, I am curious as to why you use the term “replica” so often. I interpret that term usage as implying two possibilities:
[li]“Real” swords are no longer produced, and/or have become a “lost art,” so they are replicas in the sense that they are as close to the original design as we can know.[/li][li]“Real” swords are not readily available, and/or are restricted, in the United States.[/li][/ul]

Is this a fair assessment?

Also, in a related question: If I wanted to carry a sword on my person, in public in the US, (or anywhere for that matter) are there any regulations I would have to follow? (such as firearms require a permit / license)

You’re basically right. I use the Term Replica because that’s what they tend to be: replicas of historical pieces.

There are some smiths that, while not copying a specific historical piece, still create their weapons with materials and building methods (though modern as they may be) which will yield a good quality sword with proper historical characteristics and function. Essentially All smiths attempt to recreate period quality and function, even if not trying to recreate a specific historical piece in a museum somewhere.

It is legal to own a sword in the US, though you’d have to research your state’s laws to see what restrictions are imposed on carrying swords on your person.

Truly, although I love swords and am a student of their proper use, I do not see them as effective practical self-defense tools for our time. If it’s practical self defense you are looking for, a dagger or a hand gun might be more useful, and will draw less attention too :wink: