Swords Buying Guide

by Staff Writer

Blade weapons have a romantic history, carrying the symbolic and ceremonial significance of a medieval past. Collectible swords continue to be popular in military ceremony, sports, and as art pieces. This swords buying guide will lay out some important facts about sword types and features to help you find a high-quality, attractive sword for your collection.

About Collectible Swords:

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  • Functional swords:

    Functional swords retain their edge and are constructed of the same materials as weapons-grade swords. The authenticity of functional swords is an attractive feature to many collectors.

  • Display swords:

    For collectible swords meant only for display, you'll be judging a sword solely on the quality of its artistry. Display swords can be lighter and less expensive, as they are not made to be as sharp or as strong as functional swords. Collectible swords meant for display can exhibit your heritage, mark your military service, or create a specific decorative theme.

Parts of Swords

  • Hilt:

    The handle, or hilt, of the sword surrounds the tang, giving the sword holder a place to grip. It consists of the grip, the pommel, and the guard. Depending on the sword, the grip may be made of wood or metal and covered in cloth or wire to prevent slipping.

  • Pommel:

    The pommel is the back end of the sword that attaches to the bottom of the hilt or a full tang. Pommels may appear as a large ball of metal designed to counterbalance the weight of the blade.

  • Guard (also cross-guard or hand-guard):

    The guard is a metal piece that extends to each side of the blade to keep the sword holder's hand separate from the opponent's blade. Guards may be a simple bar, giving the sword a cruciform appearance. One side of the bar may bend back toward the pommel as a knuckle protector or the guard can form a basket which almost covers the hand. Basket-hilt designs will affect how a sword can be displayed. Steel and brass are common guard metals.

  • Blade:

    All blades are attached to the hilt by the tang, a part of the blade extending into the hilt. Some tangs extend only halfway into the hilt. A "full-tang" blade extends all the way to the pommel. Full-tang swords tend to be sturdier. Sword sizes are often given in two numbers: blade length and overall length. If only one length is listed, it is usually the overall length unless otherwise noted. The quality of a sword blade consists of its hardness and polish, which is determined by its construction technique. A hand-forged blade will be much stronger and more durable than a factory-made sword blade, but it is really only necessary for functional blades.

  • Scabbard:

    The scabbard is a wood or leather sheath which protects the sword when not in use. Scabbard materials matter because they can determine how much air and moisture your sword is exposed to. Scabbards are not always included with collectible swords meant for display.

Types of Collectible Swords

  • Cutlasses:

    This is the sailor's sword, with a short, curved blade. Many cutlasses have basket hilts covering much of the hand.

  • Saber:

    A saber is a full-length sword (approximately 36 inches) with a double-edge point, a curve, and a basket hilt. Sabers were used by cavalry during the 19th century.

  • Short sword:

    Descended from ancient designs, these early swords were a little larger than daggers. Short swords have short, leaf-shaped blades and minimal cross-guards. Blades are rarely longer than 24 inches.

  • Broadsword:

    Originally a specific design, broadswords featured a wide, double-edged blade of about 36 inches or longer. This sword has cross-style guards and is sometimes too long to be carried in a waist scabbard. Today, the word refers to most European-style swords of different lengths. The Scottish claymore is a prime example of a broadsword.

  • Great sword:

    Great swords resemble long swords, but they are much larger and heavier. Blade lengths sometimes exceeded 48 inches, and handles are true two-handed grips. Many featured curved, ornate hand-guards and other embellishments.

  • Rapier:

    This straight-bladed sword is about the same length as a broadsword -- 36 inches or more -- but is generally much thinner and lighter. Rapiers often feature ornate hand-guards and are used in fencing.

  • Katana:

    Meaning "sword," the katana is, without doubt, the most common category of Japanese sword decorating American homes. Their popularity began when katana swords were brought to the United States after World War II as war prizes. Blade length is approximately 36 inches, and the blade is curved.

  • Wakizashi:

    Translated as "side arm," a wakizashi is the traditional Japanese companion sword, with a blade about 18-inches long and a curve similar to katana. Katana and wakizashi were traditionally worn and today are displayed together as a "daisho" ("large and small"). For such displays, the daisho is often accompanied by a tanto (short blade) and, sometimes, the wakizashi is replaced by a tanto.

  • Tanto:

    Meaning "short sword," a tanto is a Japanese dagger. The almost straight blade is usually single-edged. Blade length is about 9 inches.

  • Shamshir:

    Translated into English as "scimitar," shamshir is among the most ornate of display swords and are frequently accompanied by extremely ornate scabbards. The deeply curved blade is the distinctive feature. Lengths vary up to 48 inches, sometimes more, and the hilt styles include straight, guard, and basket.