Ethical considerations with antique swords, part 1: sparring

An 1885 pattern British cavalry sabre, from the Triquetra Collection.
An 1885 pattern British cavalry sabre, from the Triquetra Collection.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 29th January 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

This is going to be a short article, presenting an ethical consideration. Some HEMA groups who study sabre have collected antique sabres, filed them down and blunted them for safety, and then have used these antiques for their training and sparring activities. Perhaps this was more common a decade ago than it is now, but every so often I come across references to the idea when people are discussing where to buy a good training sabre.

One of the reasons that people are sometimes more inclined to use an antique sabre than a modern sabre made by a modern smith is the duel issues of cost and availability: if an antique sabre can be purchased for £150 to £200, and will be dispatched inside the week, that can look like a much better option than a £200 to £250 sabre that will take six months to construct. From the point of view of purely cost and ease of availability, this might indeed be the better option.

However, there is an ethical consideration. There are only so many examples of each historical type of sabre in existence, and some models are rarer than others. If there are, for example only two thousand examples of a given pattern of sabre that have survived worldwide, some good quality, others in a poorer shape, then it is fair to take a good quality example and blunt it, then use it for regular training and sparring so that it takes all kinds of damage from use and wear and tear?

I believe that this is a very unethical thing to do. One person choosing to buy an antique sabre for this purpose will deprive the world of one surviving example of that type of sword. Maybe one less antique in the world is not such a horrendous thing in the grand scheme of things – but what about a club of ten or twenty people doing this? What about a small club that nonetheless gives this advice to lots of new members over the period of a decade or so, perhaps removing fifty or more swords from the pool of collectible and study-able antiques?

Suddenly, this represents quite a dent in the pool of extant antique swords, a black hole that takes swords out of circulation, away from museums or other collections, and destroys their value as items to study. They become simple tools of sport rather than items of academic and historic value.

It is a separate matter to have handling sessions of antique swords, to hold them and even swing them through the air to assess their balance and handling characteristics. This can be a good thing, as it lets people study the swords and develop their understanding of how different patterns of swords could compare to each other. It even allows comparison of different examples of the same pattern of sword, to see that some implementations were made to a higher or lower quality than others. There is much that can be gleaned from a handling session.

Do I advise people to buy (relatively) cheap and easily available antique swords and turn them into a sparring tools? No, I believe it is an unethical practice. Instead, I would encourage people to support modern smiths who make their living from studying historical swords and making good quality reproductions that are safe for training and sparring. It might be a little more expensive, and you might have to wait a little longer to receive it, but this is preferable to destroying antique items out of selfish desire to possess a sword cheaply and quickly.