While shopping around for swords, knifes, and daggers, you might have come across some weapon smiths that claim their swords as “highest quality” or “the best made”. These claims might have some basis, however it doesn’t hurt to define a set of criteria by which you determine quality.

Part of our Sword buyers Guide goal, is to help people to not get cheated into purchasing what’s actually not a sword but an over-ambitious kitchen knife, or just a simple display peice! Swords and knives differ in what’s expected out of them. A sword is most definitely not a longer knife, and people who merely approach it that way may be selling you something no better than a Taiwanese replica piece of junk! Which I even freely admit we do sell here at The Captains Trunk are mostly DISPLAY Only pieces. But we are always increasing our inventory, so check in with us often.

However as there are so many factors that determine quality, we wanted to give you a very cursory breakdown of a few things to get you started.

Metallurgy of Metal Used

First of all, anything made of stainless steel cannot be considered a real sword but a display sword. Anyone selling you stainless steel as a real sword needs to understand that stainless blades are molecularly brittle and cannot take nearly the same punishment as the swords of old, regardless of the steel coming from Toledo of Spain or any other historical landmark.

Modern metallurgy has had incredible advances. Steels of different metallurgies have different designations, but they are all generally simple alloys or “low alloy” high carbon steel.

Let’s take stainless steel for example. It’s generally very high in chromium which acts as a grain enhancer but weakens the molecular bonds – definitely not a weakness you want in a sword!

On the other hand, 5160 steel is used much in truck springs and has proven itself as a sword that can give as much as it can get. Other steels that are used for, say, higher end Japanese katanas might be made from forge welded cable steel, or from the AISI 10xx series such as 1050, 1084, 1095, etc. which are metallurgically similar (though with differences) with traditional Japanese steel sources. L6 is a steel that is currently the talk of the town, with incredible performance being reported. In the case of Japanese swords, the steel must be able to be clay tempered to create a real temper line (or “hamon”) which is something high alloy steels cannot do.

Some smiths have used O1, D2, or A2 for swords. These are in the tool steel category, and can serve as functional swords. But if you want the same beautiful aesthetics as a real Japanese sword temper line, you’re out of luck unless the smith knows a special technique to achieve this.


Another thing of importance is the quality of the source of steel itself. How so? Many swords manufactured in the Philippines and other third world countries such as India and Pakistan may use “spring steel”. These are in fact recycled springs from tanks or trucks. While in America the cost of new 5160 steel is quite low, the recycling of truck springs could present a problem. Often times, recycled spring steel is not processed properly; the process of treating the steel takes some skill, but third world countries have been known to cut corners. This results in “memory” in the steel which may cause the steel to stress and want to revert to its original grain direction. Also, without proper annealing and normalization, the steel can suffer micro-crystaline cracks. Thus, over a period of time, this can cause “cracking” along the grain boundaries as the sword is subjected to stress and shock. The result is that swords can eventually break if they are not made correctly.

Thus, be very careful when purchasing swords. Find out what country they are made with. Observe the sales pitch. “Live steel” or “Spring Steel” or just “High Carbon Steel” can be either incomplete or misleading information depending on how its presented. This is not to say that steel from recycled sources are bad. Some of the best Japanese style swords have been made from anything from forge welded cables to Russian anchor iron. It’s how the steel is recycled and retreated for the sword.

Heat Treating

The goal of heat treating is to achieve an ideal balance between toughness and hardness – qualities which are inversely proportional to one another! Toughness has to do with impact absorption and shock tolerance, while hardness has to do with cutting and edge-holding capability. Too soft, and your sword gets cut into. Too hard and the sword is too brittle.

Poor heat treating can totally ruin a sword. It’s amazing how some businesses or websites boast about the quality of the steel but speak very little about how a sword was heat treated. If there is no mention, and the sword retailer or reseller cannot comment on the heat treat, and if the sword is US$300 or under, then chances are your sword may not perform as well as a sword made by a smith who paid particular attention to maximizing the performance of the blade.

In the case of Japanese swords, the edge is harder for cutting durability, while the back of the blade is softer to withstand the stresses of combat (though the Samurai tried to kill with single blows and avoid blade-to-blade contact altogether!)

If you don’t heat treat it right, initially, it might not survive the final water quench and end up crack. Some cracks are very obvoius, and some are very fine. The fine ones can grow larger over time in some cases.

Some Renaissance Faire interpretations of, say, the Japanese sword, are – to say the least – pitiful. They do not have a hardened edge and softer spine like traditional Japanese swords do – which is a magnificent marriage between toughness and hardness – a result of extra careful heat treating. They are merely selling a curved bar of steel with a sharp point and a sharp edge which do not require as much work!

Weight and Balance

Even if some have a good concept of the first two points, some sword makers don’t have any concept with how a sword should feel. The best thing to do is to discretely ask the sword maker his philosophy on approaching a blade design. Dean Piesner, a sword maker in St. Jacobs, Ontario, Canada, relates that he first determines with the customer what the intended use of the blade – and its intended target is. These factors – including the person’s physical measurements – come into play in the resulting sword design. A sword made to cut armor will differ in design than a sword designed to just cut through flesh. Historically, the Japanese sword had differences in balancing thickness and blade width, and adding fullers (or grooves – not “blood grooves”) to lighten the blades in some cases.

A large blade needn’t be all that heavy, as a result of balancing all these factors. Thus the ability to craft a weapon that satisfies (and exceeds) the parameters of its intended use is a tremendous blessing. In short, a sword does not have to be heavy, contrary to some people’s belief. In fact, a heavy sword can undermine maneuverability, and in a life or death situation I would bet my life on a well balanced and ligher sword that was made with the aforementioned qualities (Points 1, 2, and 3).

Swordmakers of yesteryear constantly worked with fencing masters, etc. in a synergistic relationship which provided constant feedback of how a sword was made. The sword was made for man. Thus a smith without this kind of support is hindered from providing a product that can serve as a weapon. Otherwise you have a wall-hanger or decorative piece.

Beware of swords that are over 3 lbs. Some decorative swords are 5 to 10 lbs. which is as heavy as a weight-training dumbbell. In olden times, a sword of that incredible weight would get you killed by someone else’s sword!

Design and Aesthetics

Some say, “Who cares how it looks, so long as it’s functional?” However, the sword of ancient times have their own artistic elegance which cannot be denied. While not all swords are ornate or detailed with gold, silver, or gems, the fact remains that there is a balance, again, between sword design and aesthetics, ranging from swept hilt rapiers to Italian schiavonas to Scottish basket hilt broardswords.

A fuller, for example, may in some swords be joined by one or more smaller fullers. The effect looks decorative, but the lighter sword suffers no compromises in strength. If you imagine the diamond-like cross section of a sword and picture a fuller on either side of the blade, a fuller basically creates two spines. The spine serves as a backbone of support for a blade.

Modern day swordmakers who make ugly weapons perhaps can benefit from a study of historical weapons. Some Western-interpretations of the Japanese katana are indeed pitiful in appearance. The handles are not of wood, as was the tradition, but is basically the tang made thicker, and then wrapped around with an appoximation (or an attempt) of a traditional wrap, and then “frozen” with epoxy. One person related to me, “They do that because they just don’t know how to make a proper handle and wrap the thing properly!” Interestingly, they boast about the functional aspects of the sword to detract you from looking at the poor aesthetics.

At one knife show, someone showed me his “katana” and boasted about it, indicating four different Rockwell hardness readings, from edge to two mid-points and finally the spine. He was very pleased with himself at the differential heat treat he achieved. But what is it made of? “Stainless steel.” Ah. Bu-bye.

And if you’re approaching someone to make a Japanese style katana, it’s worth studying the actual geometry of a Japanese blade. A katana blade, if you study it carefully, is beautiful because of its wonderous temper line, its grain (which comes from forging and not stock removal or grinding) and the geometry of the blade. People who make curved bars of steel with sharp edges and sharp points have entirely missed the point of the katana and have inadvertently made the sword heavier (this is one serious problem I have with many Renaissance Faire interpretations of katanas.) The attention to detail of the facets of a traditional Japanese blade given by traditional sword polishers is an immense discipline of many years of study and should not be flippantly overlooked!

Another thing to take into account is the hilt. The hilt comprises the guard, the handle, and the pommel. While the pommel is mostly seen as the counterweight to the blade, the hilt has to be seen as a whole. This, in turn, has to be factored in with the previous Point regarding weight and balance. Many fantasy swords have the wildest hilts in the world, and yet the hilts are so heavy that the sword makes no sense as a weapon.

For the handle, I find that certain wire wraps are very comfortable, while certain others will absolutely tear your skin off or give you blisters. Certain leather grips are good, but some others may give your hand a hard time. Those “katanas” which are, say, parachute chord over the handle/tang can be uncomfortable to the hand by virtue that you’re trying to grip a flat rectangular bar of steel and not a more ergonomic rounder handle that a wood-carved handle can give you.

Adherence to Tradition

There is a reason why swords were made the way they were. They’ve come from many years and generations of painstaking research, trial and effort. Certain designs worked and certain ones didn’t. Consider the Japanese katana and how it maintained its general shape throughout the centuries!

There is a saying that if we don’t study from history we are bound to repeat its mistakes. I personally admire the swordmakers who approach museums and private collections of historical antique swords and research how they were made, their construction and their balance.

My personal feeling is that modern technology should generally only enhance and not replace the overall creation of the sword. For example, certain metals or techniques or tools can aid and help deliver a better performing product and improve consistency of quality. Swordmaking is as much an art as it is a science, and perhaps a way of life.

Recreations of historical swords should, at the very least, match the functionality of the original. Some modern pieces may not duplicate the ornate decorative features of the original sword as closely as the originals were, so as to maintain affordability and lower cost. The degree of decoration does not necessarily guarantee a more battleworthy sword.

In the case of Japanese swords, creating a Western implementation where it’s a contiguous bar of steel and wrapped either with an approximation of a handle wrap, or just strung with parachute chord, etc. are strictly Western interpretations and don’t truly qualify as “katanas”. Devoted schools of tradition feel these sword should not even be marketed as katanas but as “katanas” because so much work has been bypassed in making such a sword. Smiths of ancient Japan have been known to sit at the feet of their masters for at least a decade learning the craft of sword making. Claims by smiths today – who have bypassed the painstaking processes – and claim superior performance are debatable and should be taken with a grain of salt. Do you want a sharp bar of steel, or do you want a real sword?


Finally, does the sword feel like it is a part of you – an extension of yourself? Is its use awkward to your own natural body movements or does its use appear intuitive? While these are debatable and subjective qualities, I feel these are a good start for a beginner. If a sword maker has satisfied the aforementioned points, the quality of their work compared with that of others following the same criteria will be – not identical – but within the same ballpark. There will always be room for new discoveries and new methods and approaches to forging and design. A smith that achieves the aforementioned points and yet is actively researching ways to improve quality is probably worth your attention. Dean Piesner says, “It’s not the final product that is the art but rather the process itself.”

To find high quality swords, knives, daggers and more online goto: www.thecaptainstrunk.com

As long time members of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), we have always been on the lookout for high quality products available at a reasonable price – whether it be garb, feast gear, weapons for use on the field or display, but were frustrated at not finding what was needed in one place. From this humble idea, The Captain’s Trunk was born.

We have grown a great deal since the beginning and are continually looking for new merchants to work with. If you don’t find what you are looking for here, or own a business that would fit in with our family, please let us know! It is our goal to grow to become the premier, “One Stop Shop” for re-enactors, fantasy enthusiasts, collectors and more.

The Captain’s Trunk is a subsidiary of Shape Shifter Enterprises. We are a family owned and operated business, serving our customers in Tucson, Arizona, and the world.

It is our goal that you will have an enjoyable online shopping experience, with us. We truly believe that Your Happiness is our Success and welcome the opportunity to work with you!

The “Captain”

The Captain’s Trunk – A Treasure Trove for the Modern Day Re- Enactor!

Historically accurate medieval swords and medieval pavilions, shields and armor, authentic pirate swords and daggers, amazing samurai swords — collectors’ weapons of war and piracy, and more!

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