It is perhaps quite a contentious statement, but I do like to use the Red Dragon synthetic longswords in my club. Not everyone likes them, especially when steel is an option, but I do believe that they serve a number of important purposes and they are valuable training tools that I like to see people using.
This article: motivation and transparency
First things first, this article may sound like a huge advertisement for these swords. I am not receiving any kind of payment, discount, or incentive to write this article. The people behind the Red Dragon brand do not know that I am writing this article, and I don’t expect anything in return for publishing it on my website. (Although if they want to buy me some beer at the next FightCamp, I won’t turn them down!)
I hear and read quite a lot of negativity about these training tools on a regular basis, and yet I think they are an excellent and often overlooked training tool. I would like to share my thoughts on the matter, hopefully provide some counter-arguments to the usual statements, and maybe even stimulate some discussion about what people look for in their training swords and how well different models manage to achieve those goals (beyond simply being shiny).
Probably the most obvious and still most valuable thing about the Red Dragon synthetic longswords is how much noise they make when you swing them through the air. They are loud! And the sound changes quite clearly when cuts become better or worse – it is easy to tell from the sound whether a cut had correct edge alignment or if it was partially flat, or where in the cutting motion the acceleration and deceleration occurs.
I make a point of insisting on good quality cutting mechanics in my club. If we can’t make a decent cut with a sword, if we can’t make a simple cut from above with a sharp sword go through a not-difficult cutting medium in an ideal situation, then what is the point in training actions that are rubbish? We need to train good quality cutting mechanics so that our actions are functional, and this should start on day 1.
With the Red Dragon synthetics, beginners can practise their cutting mechanics and hear the audible feedback immediately. I can hear the sound from across the hall, and it makes my life very easy in terms of diagnosing problems and helping beginners improve.
Other synthetic swords (and many steel swords) are much quieter and do not provide the same amount of audible feedback with such clarity.
Advantage: weight and balance
The weight of the Red Dragon synthetic longswords is around 770 grams, which is pretty light. This is perhaps a little unrealistic, but I don’t think that is a problem – I have written before about the problems of using swords that are too heavy, and I believe strongly that lightweight swords are definitely the appropriate training tool for people who do not yet have the physical development to benefit from using anything heavier.
It is quite easy for people to injure themselves while training by doing many repetitions of a slightly incorrect action. This can lead to wrist problems, elbow problems, shoulder problems, and more! The people who are most likely to perform motions incorrectly are also usually the people whose physicality has not yet adjusted to support the use of swords for a couple of hours at a time, and therefore a lightweight sword is an excellent and appropriate training tool.
I have given myself overtraining injuries in the past, and have written about the warning signs of pain, and I consider it to be sensible practice to use a training tool of an appropriate weight rather than pushing for a “realistic” weight immediately.
The swords also handle like real swords, with similar balance, and I might even go as far as to say that they handle better from this point of view than many steel swords.
The blades are very flexible. They might even be described as wobbly. For some people, this is a deal breaker; for me, I think it is an advantage.
My students can practise thrusts upon each other, wearing just t-shirts, without any danger. The swords are flexible enough that a significant portion of the mass behind the thrust is removed from the impact, and a class full of people wearing just t-shirts and no padded jackets are able to spend two hours practising thrusts without any injuries.
Of course, we are rarely going at a high intensity when people are just wearing t-shirts; but if people do not yet have the protective gear suitable for high-intensity training, and do not have the training tools (steel swords) for high intensity training, and are perhaps still relatively beginners, it might be reasonable to suggest that they don’t need so much high intensity training and that it is no bad thing to learn to look after each other and not to break each other with reckless thrusts.
In terms of the wobble in the blades during parries and cuts, this is really only evident if the performance and mechanics of the cuts and parries are poor. Well-formed cuts and parries do not suffer much at all, because everything is aligned properly. From this point of view, the Red Dragon synthetics are still a useful training tool even for more experienced practitioners, because they show immediately if your cuts and parries are well-formed (no wobble) or badly-formed (wobbling and bouncing all over the place).
To my mind, the flexibility is only a disadvantage if people are not actively working to form cuts and parries properly.
These training swords are cheap. I can outfit a full class with loaner swords for a not-ridiculous sum of money. I also don’t need much protective gear behind masks to go with them, making it possible to get a viable club off the ground quickly with plenty of loaner swords and protective gear for newcomers, without needing to spend a fortune on it.
When I opened Liverpool HEMA, we had 10 Red Dragon synthetic longswords, and about 12 fencing masks of different sizes. My budget for this club kit was about £1000 – still quite a lot, but it was a tiny investment when considering that this is part of my business. By comparison, I have seen other clubs seeking crowdfunding for £2000 (or more) or more to be able to provide two (sometimes just two!) full sets of loaner gear and training swords so that students can spar with steel at tournament intensity.
For a club on a budget, I think you cannot go wrong with the cheap and cheerful solution of the Red Dragon synthetic longswords, especially since they come with so many advantages!
Training swords are often subject to quite a lot of abuse. Club loaner training swords are often subject to even more abuse and perhaps a little less “looking after” than they really should receive. Bits wear out, bits break.
The Red Dragon range of synthetic swords were designed to be modular so that you could customise it this way, that way, or some other way. It means that if a grip wears out, you just spend a few pounds on a new one and fit it straight away. If a blade snaps through overuse, you don’t need to spend a couple of hundred pounds on a new one, you just get a new blade and fit it into the old hilt parts. If a crossguard bends or breaks, just get a new one and fit it.
While the swords that we have at Liverpool HEMA are the original swords from when the club opened, several of them have received new grips, new crossguards, and a few blades have been replaced. I don’t think any of them are in precisely the same configuration of parts that they were when the club opened. This has allowed the club to maintain a healthy stock of training swords without breaking the bank.
It wouldn’t be a fair review if I didn’t list the disadvantages. There are plenty, don’t worry!
The swords are unrealistically light. This leads to people treating them like toys and whipping them around in drills and sparring in a way that just isn’t possible with steel swords, and this can create quite unsafe training conditions. Being proactive about developing a healthy and reasonable club culture and cracking down on people who behave inappropriately with their swords can solve many of these issues.
The swords are quite flexible and whippy. If someone doesn’t care about edge alignment, and even if your parry is perfect, the attacker’s sword may bend over or around your parry and leave you with a stinging red welt regardless of the fact that you parried correctly. This can be quite painful and a bit annoying if you are training with people who either don’t care about proper cutting mechanics or who have not yet managed to develop the necessary skill to maintain god cutting mechanics for a whole bout.
They are plastic. They look like plastic and feel like plastic. If you care about aesthetics or the enjoyment of handling objects, then this just isn’t as nice as picking up a steel sword by a manufacturer such as Albion. You get what you pay for.
Because they are cheap, modular, and can be fixed cheaply and easily if they break, people sometimes treat them as consumables and don’t respect the weapon at all. Sure. However, I’d suggest that this is more of a problem with mentality and culture rather than a problem inherent with a particular model of training sword.
It is probably quite clear from reading this article that I am strongly in favour of having these swords as loaner equipment in my club.
I have one myself and use it regularly when I am teaching, to help demonstrate good mechanics via sound. I wouldn’t buy another one with a different configuration; I don’t like them enough to build a collection of them with slightly different looks! (My collection of steel swords with different looks and handling characteristics, on the other hand… Well, the less said, the better, otherwise my wallet may become quite upset with me.)
There is a saying that there is a place for everything, and everything in its place. This is usually in relation to keeping things tidy, especially when talking about storing tools in a workshop area, but I think it also holds true for choice of tools. There is a place for each kind of training sword, and if you use the appropriate tool in the appropriate place, it’s all good.
I would like to reiterate that this is not a paid advert for the Red Dragon brand; these are genuinely my own thoughts about the usefulness of these particular tools as training swords for general club use.
If your club has a stock of training swords to lend to people, what models do you use – and, importantly, why? What are the features and rationales behind your club’s choice of loaner swords? Does this have any impact on the amount of protective gear that the club feels required to provide, or how much gear you require your students to purchase quickly?
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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. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.