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Historical Inspiration This forum is dedicated to the discussion of historical knife design and its influence on modern custom knife work.

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Old 11-24-2008, 10:07 AM
Kevin R. Cashen Kevin R. Cashen is offline
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London Research Trip - pure historical inspiration for me

When I saw the title of this forum I thought I would add my most recent experience in historical inspiration, in hope that I would inspire others to seek out the treasures from our past and learn from the fantastic work our ancestors did, for indeed "we see farther because we stand upon the shoulders of giants!" I believe modern blademaking can only go so far without in depth study of all the woderful work that preceded it. There seems to be an abudance of very refined skills today clumsily assembled into one package that lacks flow and overall value as whole. The folks who study the work form the past and grasp how form follows function seem to be the ones able to ascend beyond this.

Earlier this month I returned from long planned research trip to London England. If one embarks on such a journey with the idea of researching swords in general they will go entirely insane within the first few hours and probably accomplish very little in the way of in-depth study due to the overwhelming and endless numbers of items to choose from in a place like London. For years I have been dabbling with a style of sword that has always fascinated me with its unmatched elegance and lethality, that sword is the rapier. But its most endearing quality for me is the lack of popularity that other swords enjoy. I cannot bring myself to work in areas that are trendy or too common place, and have always enjoyed the challenge of taking the road less traveled. Rapiers are unique in both appearance and the way in which they were used, and so few replicas I have seen seem to be able to capture this. It appeared to me that this blade was not only very difficult to make properly (the ones I have made so far bears this out entirely), but very little study of the original blades has been done to help capture the essence of their function.

Too many times I have bit my tongue when handing one of my rapier blades to people with sport fencing experience, who immediately doubted my skill while pointing out that it didn?t feel at all like their epee or foil, all the while thinking to myself ?because it isn?t an epee or foil- it?s a rapier!? Often the commonly available replicas I have handled where either way too heavy (simple and quick manufacturing methods) or way too light so as to approximate fencing blades.

So knowing a blade making spathaphile such as myself would go entirely insane trying to see all the swords I would like in London, I bit the bullet, restrained myself and focused almost exclusively on rapiers. Of course if there happened to be a beautiful 13th century blade setting right next the rapiers it couldn?t hurt to measure it as well. With the help of friends in the conservation field and months of preplanning I was able to locate the better rapier treasure troves and provide enough credentials from my profession to gain some behind the scenes access to these fascinating blades.

After many hours in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, The British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Wallace Collection, I am now home and have the daunting task of analyzing, organizing and assembling all the information gathered on many dozens of rapiers. I will be a few months at it, but my appreciation for these magnificent swords has already multiplied many times. The preliminary graphs, based upon the cross section numbers, shows an incredibly complex and intentional blade design that most have indeed been missing in modern times. While the hilts often have been reworked from the originals, what remains is still the artistic equivalent of any decorative metalwork I have seen from any culture, and there is much of it that I will spend the rest of my life developing the skills to reproduce.

The down side is while I would love to share some of the hundreds of digital images I have, most collections have restrictions on how you use photos taken at the collections for your private use, and in order not to jeopardize my standing with them for future research I prefer not to test any of the bounds of some of the agreements I signed. You can rest assured, however, that any of the rapiers I make using the information gathered will be always available for your viewing.

As mentioned- man cannot live on bread alone, so in my studies I also managed to study blades from the 13th century and some Roman swords to add to my understanding of how the manufacturing of the raw materials and the final blade evolved over time. Perhaps I should return to London one day just to be a tourist since my trip was rather single minded, and I barely had time to sleep much as less sight see.
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Old 11-24-2008, 01:24 PM
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J.Arthur Loose J.Arthur Loose is offline
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Thanks for the thoughtful post, Kevin, and please do feel free to contribute here early & often! It's been interesting seeing quite a few "spathaphiles," and other sword-makers start to really activate with the museum & academic community as of late. I've been to some of the museums you mention, but not behind the scenes. I feel quite behind the curve on this one, myself, and I'm jealous of your trip!

I also enjoy your comments on what the study of old blades has to offer. My snobby art-school background tells me that there's a lot of technically advanced pieces out there which also happen to be downright ugly! There are also, as you point out, many technical choices that are misunderstood for various reasons, such as your experience with sport fencers and rapiers. I can think of tang & fitting issues with Viking / Migration blades which are similar.

I'd love to see more such discussion in this forum, and would certainly enjoy what I myself will learn in the process.

I look forward to seeing the results of your recent studies!


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Old 11-24-2008, 05:27 PM
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Don Halter Don Halter is offline
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Sounds like it was a great trip! I'm interested to see what your analysis uncovers.

My self and a couple others got to do a similar trip here in the states several years back (NY Met, Philly and Higgins). We were looking specifically at gauntlets, but I had a real hard time focusing when there are drawers full of migration era stuff sitting right in front and a conservator says "sure, here you go" as he hands me a patternwelded seax to hold and measure!

I have some pics of a pole hammer I still can't seem to figure out with regards to the sequence of hammering, even with very pronounced grain in the steel/iron.


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Old 11-25-2008, 01:10 PM
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Alan L Alan L is offline
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Excellent post, Kevin, that's exactly why J?l started this forum to begin with. I'm also jealous as all get-out!

I applaud those who seek out the originals of what they are trying to reproduce. I have been lucky enough to get to handle well over a hundred original 18th-early 19th century flintlock rifles over the years, as well as almost that many tomahawks and knives of the same period. That experience has convinced me that one simply cannot reproduce an item through dimensioned drawings or photos and have it come close to the feel of the real thing. Thus the proliferation of clunky-looking tomahawks and rifles that assault the brain with their essential wrongness. Here I'm speaking only of reproductions, not the modern evolutions of the genres.

The eye for "line" or "flow" our ancestors posessed in the pre-industrial world is amazing. Not to mention the level of skill achieved by the guild systems. The chiselling and modelling on some of those rapier hilts makes me want to quit trying to do metalwork and take up thumb-twiddling or jello-mold stuffing or something more suited to my abilities. I'm not bemoaning the sole authorship model of modern bladesmithing at all, it just never fails to astonish me just how good some of those hiltmakers were.


As for sport fencers who don't understand the difference between an epee and a rapier, well, having been a sport fencer for a couple of years in college I can only say they must be idiots. That, or the people I fenced with had done thier homework on the history of the sport. We were all serious sword geeks, anyway.

Keep fighting the good fight and spreading the word, Kevin! Education is the only way to save the world, after all. Thanks for all you do.
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