This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 12th February 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.
This is going to be a short article, presenting an ethical consideration. The previous article in this series discussed the problem of people sparring with antique swords; in this article, the focus will be on using antique swords for test cutting.
Test cutting is a very beneficial exercise for practitioners of historical European martial arts, as I have been written about before on this blog and in other places.
Indeed, the exercise of test cutting is so interesting and helpful that it an entire section of the Encased in Steel Anthology I has been devoted to chapters about cutting.
However, it is ever a good idea to practise test cutting with original, antique swords? If you have access to a sharp 1796 British light cavalry sabre, for example, are there any ethical problems with using it to try cutting through a milk bottle filled with water, or through a rolled tatami mat? I am in two minds about how to answer this question.
On the one hand, it is difficult to say for definite just how well or just how poorly a given type of sword would cut without actually testing it. We can look at first-hand accounts and anecdotes about the cutting abilities of different swords, such as the many and varied accounts provided in D. A. Kinsley’s book Swordsmen of the British Empire, and these could give us an indication of the cutting potential of different swords.
However, since some of the accounts appear to contradict each other (one account may say that British swords were dull and useless, another account describes a British officer cutting clean through his opponent with the same kind of sword), the impression is that the sword itself was only one factor, and the skill and strength of the user was another major factor, along with the type of clothing and armour worn by the opponent.
If you have an antique sword that is already sharp and in good condition, that you use once or twice for test cutting as part of a holistic and responsible study of the piece, then this might be justifiable.
Something to consider, though, is that swords are not light-sabres, and a badly performed cut can actually damage the sword. At our HEMAC Glasgow 2014 event, we offered a test cutting lesson, looking at the body mechanics necessary for the basket-hilted broadsword to cut through a rolled tatami mat. One of the participants botched a cut by turning the sword as it was still embedded in the tatami mat, and the blade bent around 10 to 15 degrees from true as a result. The sword had to be straightened before it could be returned to its scabbard, and even to this day, is not quite straight. Luckily this sword was a modern replica, not an antique broadsword, but it shows that a badly performed cut can damage the item.
Alternatively, if the target contains imperfections such as sand, grit, or other unusually tough or abrasive pollutants, then even a skilful cut can incur incidental damage or chipping. Using a target such as cardboard mailing tubes will wear down the cutting edge of a blade relatively quickly, unless the sword is maintained properly.
Finally, a damp or wet cutting medium (such as milk bottles filled with water or rolled tatami mats that have been soaked in water) will leave moisture on the blade, even after a successful cut. If the blade is not cleaned and cared for properly in between cuts and after the cutting session is complete, then the blade may rust or sustain damage at the molecular level.
With these problems in mind, is it still ethical to engage in test cutting with an antique blade, given that an imperfect cut may bend the blade, or that imperfections or dampness in the cutting medium may cause damage to the blade without proper cleaning and maintenance? It would definitely be irresponsible to use any sword for test cutting without cleaning it and maintaining it properly! But is it worth the risk of damaging the blade through a failed cut or from imperfections such as sand or grit in the cutting medium?
As I wrote earlier, if you have an antique sword that is already sharp and in good condition, that you use once or twice for test cutting as part of a holistic and responsible study of the piece, then this might be justifiable. I would add that the person doing the cutting should have plenty of experience of test cutting with regular training sharps before trying with an antique piece, to reduce the chance of screwing up the cut and bending the blade. And obviously the sword would need to be cleaned and maintained appropriately during and after the exercise. But if the test cutting is conducted in a responsible fashion by a skilled practitioner, and the blade is looked after properly, then perhaps it could still be ethical to include test cutting as part of the study of an antique sword.
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.