Safe training swords part 3: the schilt / ricasso

Sparring Gloves and an Albion Meyer
Sparring Gloves and an Albion Meyer. Photo by Keith Farrell, 2015.

This is the third part of a short series of articles on safety features on swords. The first part was concerned with “tipping solutions” for the point; the second part was concerned with measuring flexibility for the thrust; and this part is concerned with protecting the hands and fingers.

This article in the series is focused more on longswords, although it applies perfectly well to any training sword that does not have a complex hilt, such as messers or other medieval swords.

Terminology

The “schilt” is a name commonly given to a strange flaring shape at the base of the blade, next to the hilt, found most often on swords from the Holy Roman Empire. It is more of a modern term rather than a historical term; at least, none of the sources that discuss the use of the swords that have this feature tend to discuss the feature itself, and therefore do not use a specific piece or terminology for it.

The “ricasso” is often defined as the area at the base of the blade, next to the hilt, and is often described as being blunt rather than sharp, even on fighting swords designed for real use. It is a term found in some historical documents as well as modern books on the subject of historical fencing or arms and armour. The schilt would occur on the ricasso, if you choose to describe a particular sword as having a ricasso, and if a schilt is present.

Artwork in primary sources depicts many different types and shapes of schilt, and among the original “feders” with this feature that survive in museums and collections, there are further types and shapes. There are “chapes” (sometimes known as “rain guards”), made from leather or metals, also depicted in artwork and also surviving in museums, that may have a similar purpose and may perform a similar function to the schilt.

Purpose

The purpose seems to be additional protection of the hand and fingers at the crossguard, mainly by widening the base of the blade. The schilt could perhaps prevent an opponent’s blade from sliding down your blade onto your fingers, but the purpose does not seem to be to stop the opponent’s blade in front of your fingers; rather, the purpose seems to be ensuring that the blade is appropriately wide at the base, beside the crossguard. The wider the blade at the base, at the crossguard, the safer your fingers will be.

The swords used for real fighting tended to be slightly broader than this for training purposes or for decoration. Slim swords look very nice, but they do not tend to have the best geometry for cutting and doing their work effectively. A broader blade carries more mass, tends to be slightly more rigid, and will often cut much better than a blade might light and slim for aesthetics. “Feder” style training swords depicted in Germanic artwork from the 15th and 16th centuries often have slim blades (presumably for ease and safety of training), and a broad schilt at the base of the blade.

If a real sword for real purposes is broad at the base of the blade, but the training swords tend to have slimmer blades for a variety of safety or manufacturing reasons, then it only makes sense that the base of the blade needs to be made broad again so that the training sword performs exactly like the real sword at the location where it really matters: next to your fingers.

For this reason, I feel it is important that if a modern training sword is designed and built with a schilt, the schilt should serve the purpose of widening the blade near the base. This seems to be what the majority (although not all) of artwork and surviving examples show. So rather than trying to make a set of “parrying hooks” to stop an opponent’s blade sliding down to the crossguard, just make the base of the blade broader.

Of course, not every training sword needs a schilt, and in fact adding a schilt inappropriately may cause some serious artefacts in the use of the sword. For training a discipline such as sword and buckler according to MS I.33, it may be more appropriate to use a broader sword (such as the Oakeshott type XIV) than a slim training blade with a schilt, because the broader-bladed sword is more like what is shown in the source and will probably move in a particular fashion that helps perform the techniques of the source.

What Is it that actually makes a sword safer?

From my own experience of working with different types of swords at HEMA events across the world, teaching the methods of their use, or learning from other very skilled and knowledgeable instructors, it is my impression that the principal defence of the hand is ensuring that the blade and crossguard are in front of the fingers, so that the opponent’s sword cannot reach over the crossguard to hit you. While to a great extent this is dependent on how well you perform your techniques, to some extent it is dependent on the breadth of the blade where it meets the crossguard.

A broader blade at the crossguard means that the opponent’s sword has to travel much further over the crossguard to hit your fingers, or must be wound to a sgnificantly greater angle in order to threaten the hand. A slimmer blade requires much less effort from the attacker to reach your fingers in the bind, meaning that hits to the fingers can be incidental rather than deliberate.

Therefore, the broader the base of the blade at the crossguard, the safer the sword for your hand and fingers. This can be achieved by having a broad blade with no schilt, or by having a slim blade for most of the length combined with a broad schilt at the base of the blade. The purpose of the schilt here is to broaden the blade where it matters most. A schilt that is slim at the crossguard, that flares out in a spiky fashion somewhere further along the blade, does not actually provide any protection where it matters most; a good schilt must provide breadth at the base of the blade, if we want it to be a useful and functional piece of protection for the hands.

Conclusion

So, when designing a schilt to put on a new model of sword you are making, or when considering what kind of schilt to ask for when buying a new sword, please consider that the main purpose of the schilt seems to be to broaden the blade at base of the blade beside the crossguard, rather than anything else. With that in mind, broader schilts are safer for your fingers than slimmer schilts or funny-shaped schilts.

Alternatively, you may not need a schilt if you take a sword with a broader blade, and you may even find that this choice helps you perform the techniques from your chosen source material because you are using the right tool for the job.

Further reading

Roger Norling. “Brief Description on Training Weapons in History.” HROARR, 5th July 2014, accessed 14th May 2017, http://hroarr.com/brief-description-on-training-weapons-in-history/

Roger Norling. “The WhatChaMaCallit-Schwert.” HROARR, 1st January 2013, accessed 14th May 2017, http://hroarr.com/the-feder-whatchamacallit/

Roger Norling. “A Call to Arms.” HROARR, 4th July 2012, accessed 14th May 2017, http://hroarr.com/a-call-to-arms/

Roger Norling. “Federschwert or a Blunt Longsword?” HROARR, 16th February 2011, accessed 14th May 2017, http://hroarr.com/federschwert-or-a-blunt-longsword/

KeithFarrell

KeithFarrell

Keith Farrell is one of the senior instructors for the Academy of Historical Arts. He teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events, and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. He has authored "Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick" and the "AHA German Longsword Study Guide", and is one of the regular contributors to the Encased in Steel online blog. He has been a member of HEMAC since 2011, and was awarded a HEMA Scholar Award for Best Instructor for research published in 2013.
KeithFarrell