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Plastic swords are for children

Disclaimer: this post should be read as a completely personal, utterly unscientific, non-practical, emotional, historical fundamentalist tirade against something I find offensive. On this matter I am unapologetically fanatical. You have been warned.

About eight years ago I was appalled to find, at a WMA event in America, the majority of practitioners using aluminium swords.  When I returned home I drew a line in the sand, by posting this on SFI, under the heading Aluminium Wasters: NO!

Aluminium wasters are becoming more and more popular as longsword training tools. Two main reasons are put forward for their use:

1) Price: at about $120–$150 they are half the price of steel blunts.

2) Safety: given their thicker edge and lower mass, they impart less energy to the target on impact, so are safer to fence with at high speed.

I find this development alarming, and not in the best interests of the Art of Swordsmanship. Here are my reasons:

1) Aluminium wasters are unhistorical. There is abundant record of the use of wooden wasters, and some extant examples of blunt steel training longswords, but (obviously) no aluminium swords were used in period. That said, I use protective equipment like fencing masks and hockey pads, which are equally unhistorical, but in my view have far less negative impact on how techniques may be executed.

2) They do not behave like steel swords. Their handling characteristics are totally different, they weigh less, the heft is just wrong. You can spot an aluminium sword being used from across the room, simply by the way it moves. Aluminium planks resonate quite differently to tempered steel blades (blunt or sharp), so when the weapons collide, they behave totally differently (this is true for all wasters, wooden, aluminium, padded, bamboo, or whatever). Many of the more sophisticated techniques rely on the feeling of the blade contact in your hands (often called sentimento di ferro); think of mutieren or duplieren in the German school (see page 184 of Tobler’s excellent ‘Fighting with the German Longsword’); think of the difference between yielding through frontale to get to the outside, or holding your opponent in frontale for an instant while you grasp his blade and kick him in the kneecap (as one sees in Fior Battaglia). You simply do not get the same level of information coming through aluminium.

In addition, steel swords spring away from each other, or stick, depending on how they meet. This is a vital consideration when working on deflections; aluminium wasters just do not behave the same, so do not adequately prepare you for the conditions of a real fight. (Though none of us intend to fight for real, all our training, to be valid, must work as preparation for the real thing. Otherwise we can give up our pretensions to Western Martial Arts, and start developing western combat sports. Nothing wrong with that, so long as the terms are not confused. The sporting approach is death to the Art, as the history of fencing clearly demonstrates.)

3) Safety in free sparring is an illusion. Your equipment cannot keep you safe. Granted, it is less easy to hurt someone with an aluminium waster than with a steel blunt, but the risk is there. This is a wasteful shortcut to learning control, and symptomatic of the “I wanna be a knight, NOW” attitude that infects a lamentable minority of practitioners. It takes thousands of hours of hard training to learn to control a steel sword so that one may freeplay with an acceptable degree of safety. Any compromise that gets people sparring too soon is inappropriate.

4) My students all buy steel swords, and relatively soon after they start training. If they can afford it, you can. If you need a very cheap starter weapon, a wooden waster is the way to go. Historically accurate, and very cheap. Aluminium wasters are three or four times the price of a wooden waster, and half the price of a blunt. As such, they form an economic barrier to purchasing a steel sword, which wooden wasters do not. Save up a bit longer while training with a wooden waster, and you can have a proper sword.

I have discussed this issue at length with many of my colleagues in the United States, and so far have only heard one valid argument for the use of aluminium. In a litigious culture, where horrendous punitive damages may apply, a school or teacher must be seen to be making every possible safety concession, just in case there is an accident. Living in a country where any judge would say “you swing swords at people’s heads and then come crying to me when you get hurt? Get out of my courtroom!” I have no good answer to that, except education of the jury-forming general public.

This is a particularly difficult topic as many equipment manufacturers, particularly the small-time producers, have no facilities for making steel blunts, but can churn out aluminium wasters with ease. I hate to undermine their business, as these are decent people doing the community a good service; but if they turn their talented hands to wooden wasters and to safety equipment, they will hopefully not lose by it.

It is up to us as a community to seek always the best way, the highest way, not just the most convenient way, to pursue our Art. Aluminium wasters are a convenience, a compromise, and a step on the slippery slope towards sporting interpretations. They have no place in my Salle, and I wish they had never been invented.

I look forward to hearing your opinions….

This generated something of a storm, and the whole six pages of wild opinion can be found here.

Going back across the pond as I do once or twice a year I have seen a steady diminution of aluminium- by WMAW 2011, I think there was one or two knocking around, and everyone had steel. My primary goal at that event was to introduce students to the difference between blunt steel and sharp- just as aluminium behaves differently to steel, so blunt steel does to sharp. Sharp swords stick, and an awful lot of period technique becomes a lot easier and more natural to do when the blades are sharp. As I said a hundred times that weekend alone: “if you haven’t done it with sharps, you haven’t done it at all”.

While this general improvement (as I would see it) has been going on in the part of our WMA community that I spend most of my time in, there has been a simultaneous shift in the opposite direction, mostly amongst those elements of the community who are most interested in creating tournaments. This has lead to the development and widespread adoption of the only training tool that is more aesthetically offensive to me than an aluminium sword: plastic swordlike objects. Are we children that we want to play with toy swords?

Other than simple disgust, my objections are the following:

1) they in no way simulate the behaviour of steel swords when they meet.

2) they in no way encourage students to treat the swords as if they were sharp

3) they in no way reproduce the handling characteristics of steel swords (they tend to be too light)

4) they encourage foolish freeplay.

It is of course possible for two experts to use these things like swords, but they are generally used by beginners who are then lulled into a totally false sense of security, and a delusion of competence, that can only do them harm.

If you cannot afford a steel training sword, and want something a bit better than a stick to practice with, there is always the wooden waster, widely available and about the same price as the plastic monstrosity. To take those offered by Purpleheart armory as an example: Their plastic “longsword” costs $73, is 124cm, 48.5” long, and weighs 785g, 1.73lb (according to their website. I don’t have any of these things in my possession. You can pay 125 dollars for their type III also). Their (excellent) wooden wasters are $70, and are 120cm (48”) long and weigh about 950g (2.1lb). In terms of mass and dimensions, there is not a lot to choose between them, but in terms of usefulness as a training tool, one has millenia of pedigree, the other has not. One has been used by many of the greatest swordsmen in history, at some stage in their training; the other only by a few modern practitioners.

I am well aware that serious living-history buffs may find my plastic-soled training shoes, modern-pattern mask, and t-shirt-based training uniform equally appalling. I wear historical clothing and footwear for research purposes, but it is not practical for class or teaching when on any given night I may teach five different systems from five different centuries. I apologise for their suffering, and I understand it. But at the end of the day, I care about the swords, I just don’t care about the clothes.

What the argument for plastic boils down to, in the end, is lowering the short-term barriers to entry, especially to freeplay entry. They are an apparent short-cut: but as my grandma used to say, “Short cuts make long delays!”. Proponents of the plastic sword argue along the lines of cost, durability, safety, etc. But there is nothing inherently practical about the Art of Swordsmanship today. If you want self-defence, go train with Rory Miller, Marc MacYoung or someone of that ilk. Neither will recommend studying medieval combat treatises to learn modern self defence. If you want a practical battlefield art, join the army. The art and practice of historical swordsmanship should not be confused with any kind of modern combat, nor should it ever be reduced to simply playing with swords. It is not easy. It is not for everyone. And it certainly demands a much higher standard of aesthetics and risk management that you can possibly attain to by following the tupperware path. Blunt steel is already a huge compromise, which is why I test all interpretations and most drills with sharps. Plastic is just lazy, offensive, and disgusting.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

25 Responses

  1. Guy… I fully accept your critique of the use of aluminum wasters… and agree that if you can’t afford a steel blunt, go with a wooden waster, while you save for a steel sword. Once objection, however, aluminum isn’t plastic! LOL

  2. Hi, Guy! Glad to see that someone has likes and dislikes as strong as mine. I’ll see your plastic trainer and raise you a fantasy sword and a pair of fake breasts… 🙂

    Seriously, though, and for argument’s sake, I agree with you philosophically (and aesthetically–in spades, at that!), but I disagree with you practically. To me, the worth of a trainer is measured by two things: 1) whether it can make you learn at all, and 2) how far it can take you.

    As far as the first, I think it’s undeniable that you can learn the nuts and bolts of a longsword system with a plastic trainer. If you and I were stranded on a desert island with a group of newbies (let’s make them the Swedish ladies’ beach volleyball team, since we’re at it), they wanted to learn Fiore longsword and a box of Rawlings synthetic trainers floated ashore, I bet that by a couple weeks, the newbies would have absorbed Fiore’s longsword system, memorized it and may even be able to fence it at controlled speed. Sure, they may not know what it feels to have a weapon react upon steel-on-steel contact, but that takes us into my second point.

    How much can you learn with a plastic trainer? Here, we enter the realm of variables that we would have to posit. Who is teaching you? How much talent do you have? How hard do you work? How often do you train? This means that the type of sword you use is only another variable–because all other things are NOT equal. We could try an interesting experiment: let’s you and I each take up a student just for this purpose, and you put in his hands a steel sword, I a synthetic trainer. After a few months, let’s compare notes, or better yet, let’s have them go through the system next time we meet. I bet that the difference between the two students would be much more easily ascribed to how you and I teach and interpret Fiore then the fact that one uses steel and the other synthetic.

    Having said this, I do (like you) think that to truly understand a system you have to use sharp swords–but that is the crowning point, and whether you come from wood, aluminium, steel or synthetic, the amount that you lack by not having used sharps up to that point will be roughly the same in quantity (although perhaps not in quality–meaning that “what” you lack may be different for the type of trainer you have used, whereas “how much” may be quite similar).

    Now, the hardest part of my argument would be to answer the question “why would anyone start with synthetic”? Cost is definitely not *the* factor, since as you have pointed out, a waster is the same price. The only thing I can think is that with synthetic, practicing cuts solo at full speed allows you to “hear” the correct edge presentation, while with wood you can’t (or you can to a much smaller extent); and that as opposed to steel or aluminium, a synthetic trainer is much less likely to develop burrs and serrations on the blade that may injure the hands or snag on clothing. Other than that, I don’t see how, with steel available for a couple hundred bucks, anyone would use synthetic for training–but that applies to wood and aluminium as well.

    Our ancestors trained and bouted with different materials, including something as esoteric as whale-bone. We can speculate whether they would have embraced synthetic, had they had access to it, but we’ll never know–so my point is that the “historical” test is not a slam-dunk win for steel (and add to is our safety gear, and we get much farther from historical). So, my final thought is that the quality of a student is determined by the amount of work he puts in and the quality of his teacher long before the material of his training weapon. As I say to my music students who think they need a new guitar or piano: the day you get better than your instrument and you cannot learn anything until you get a new one, you let me know.

  3. I agree that plastic swords are rubbish. Don’t agree at all about sharps—besides the liability issues, you’re either being stupid dangerous or you’re pussyfooting it so much it’s not even close to being realistic. Don’t agree about wooden “wasters,” either: They’re ahistorical, not steel, and lull one into a false sense of security while essentially swinging a wooden baseball bats at another person. They can be OK for solo forms practice.

    The Hanwei feder is a decent representation of a historical training tool, and is cheap as anything. True, it’s inferior to a good blunt or higher-quality feder, but it is steel. Failing that, get a good bâton, coppiced from a single piece of wood!

    Ultimately, realism in training comes from having respect for the weapon, and that’s a cultural thing.

  4. Hello there Guy. Enjoying your blog!
    I understand where you are coming from and I was there a few years ago myself. The main thing that changed my was that I am now in a situation where I may be teaching youngsters and the nylon swords make that a whole lot simpler. (Even if the UK is not as into litigation, they do like insurance, risk assessments etc.) As to the alternative of wooden wasters I think the drawbacks are similar and while wood was used as a training tool I’m not convinced it is superior. On my limited experience the nylons I’ve handled did better than the wooden wasters.
    Perhaps my issue is with the fact that up to the age of 15 (when I was lucky enough to be allowed to start using steel) I was fighting with sticks or wooden swords, so maybe there is an unconscious bias on my part.
    I think the nylon swords still have a ways to come in terms of their overall development as a training tool but as an option for training youngsters (and for the reasons quoted above in terms of cost etc.) they may help get people involved in HEMA. What I have no doubt is that if we want to keep people there, there will never be an alternative to steel (although most of our steel training blunts are quite ahistorical as well, not to mention the difference you mention in relation to sharps …).

  5. Not all plastic swords are created equal. The early Rawlings were horrifying, the newer ones are much better. Purpleheart Type III nylons are excellent for full contact blossfechten sparring. Polypropylene wasters are good to hand to tyros for beating on pells, and as transitional weaponry for harnischfechten fighters moving from rattan to rebated steel.

    It’s been said many times and many ways, but every form of armed combat simulation has its trade-offs. I believe that training in multiple systems, from completely unarmored blossfecten with padded weapons up to cap-a-pie harness with steel all have their place in a well-rounded fighter’s training regimen.

    However, it must be noted that when you die, Crom will judge you on the Riddle of Steel. If you only know the Way of Plastic, Crom will laugh and cast you out of Valhalla.

  6. These are marvellous responses. I wish there was a “like” function on them. Thanks for the feedback 🙂
    Let me just restate for the record- my argument is 99% aesthetic and 1% practical.

  7. I enjoy freeplay with plastics, but I don’t delude myself that it is swordplay. And, I agree that *most* technical drills using plastic do not translate to historical Fiore-era technique and thus are a poor path to mastery of historical swordfighting. As Hal notes, by Crom we will not call plastic wasters, swords. And, I agree the purpleheart type IIIs are useful for hitting practice, as their weight and balance is pretty similar to steel weapons. However, at $100+ apiece, I just advocate that students buy a steel sword which is not much more expensive and allows the full range of realistic practice. Finally, Guy, it is not like you to issue a missive like this and then back off from it with a comment that your objectives are 99% aesthetic. 🙂

    1. But Eric, I’m not backing off from it. I will defend my aesthetic point at the point of a sword if need be. A huge proportion of what makes a martial art both martial and artistic is aesthetics. Mark my words, no good will come of this plastic nonsense.

  8. My youngest are 5- and 7- year of age and I’ve preferred them to play with me with wooden swords which were made the correct size – but then they do like anything which looks like somekind of a “sword”weapon. =)
    As of safety… it’s THE priority. With toys it’s easy for a child to get a view “this doesn’t hurt because it’s a toy” and sibling seems a good target to test it! So, since the wooden “swords” have more serious feeling than plastic toys, I’ve preferred wooden over plastic.
    And since I live in Finland my eldest started (at age of 13) with a blunt steel sword – couldn’t have imagined anything else at the time but perhaps that’s just since we’re student of Guy. 🙂

  9. I couldn`t figure it out why would someone go to practise historical fencing seriously or even half seriously without caring about authencity. If one do not care about authencity why not go do some form of modern fencing and also win olympics medals and money. And if you create a sword from a metal that did not exist in medievil times then it pretty much takes away the authencity.

    Didn`t even roman gladiators have blunt training weapons for training before they actually went to kill each other infront of the crowd? So does the bluntness take away any of the authencity? No it does not.

    If aluminium is strong enough then perhaps it could be used to create light safety gear but there would be no point to use it to craft training weapons for historical fencing.

  10. Hi Guy!

    First, I do agree plastic things (or shinai or whatever) have no place as serious bouting tools, for tournaments or proper, grown-up swordsmanship.

    But I don’t have an issue with them as training tools. As you say “It is of course possible for two experts to use these things like swords” – I would go further and say that students under expert instruction can also learn to use them like swords. We do 90% of our bouting with steel, and (unlike the majority of clubs) like to get students bouting very early in their training – and have no problems having their techniques distorted by using SLOs of various types, or having them transition to steel. Hell, I train kids with boffers, and they transition to steel seamlessly. So I really think the key is how you use the tools, not what they are made of.

    That said, I will repeat that they are a stupid thing to use for any kind of tournament or test of skill. They are not “safe” when used in earnest, and will lead to many bad habits if used purely as a competitive tool. I would be very upset to go to a conference and find a significant amount of plastic bouting going on.

    I do, however, feel about wooden wasters and singlesticks they way you feel about plastic. I don’t care if they were used historically, that doesn’t make them any good – they are still awful, stupid objects that are more fracking dangerous than blunt steel and of no practical use whatsoever.

    Paul

    1. Paul, I only have two problems with “serious” tournaments and steel weapons.

      1) Fighters from other clubs who individuals may have never seen fight before.

      2) My fingers.

      Yes yes, the answer to 2 is parry better. It’s a philosophy I try and live by. But as all of our gloves can attest to, hand hits can, and do happen.

      Which leads me back to my first issue with serious tournaments, other fighters.

      I’d be happy to fight you with steel. I’d be happy to fight almost any of your students with steel. Not only have I seen, and experienced, the quality of your teachings, but I trust you and your senior students enough to produce quality students.

      However, I couldn’t apply this across the board to every single potential fighter in Australia (let alone the world), especially when it comes to a competition.

      For me, the weapons come down what objectives do you have for the martial arts. There is no “one true religion” here, calling each other names only highlights how immature we are as a movement.

  11. It is true that synthetics suck at the bind, but I like the fact that I can thrust with them without risking injury. I have yet to handle steel simulators with adequate flexibility.

    I don’t discount the possibility that such blades exist. But to post such a long article without offering any recommendation for steel swords in general, let alone one that is useful for thrusting, undermines the whole argument.

    As for wood, I find them utterly useless. Without any flexability at all, one loses the thrust and thus half the system.

    1. I’m not trying to be condescending but my crew thrust at full speed with wood wasters all the time(gambason) .Yes it hurts like hell but guess what? It doesn’t take long for that pain to teach you to not get stabbed very often. Wood is far more dangerous then plastic but its this danger that makes you a better fighter, it teaches you to respect the weapon more then the plastic ones do (for me in my experience) and it is historical to use wooden wasters, after all (Historical) is the first word in HEMA. We need to listen to the master and respect the traditions, and what do the masters say about having fear and fencing?
      ps. what works for you and yours is all good, I feel that this trend for so much safety is making sloppy and weak fighters. Cheers friend

  12. Are you going to gift me a thousand dollars for steel swords and safety so that I can live up to your standards? I have financial responsibilities that are of higher priority than a steel sword, yet I am the child for using nylon.

    1. I was in two minds as to whether to allow this comment to get through my filter, and on balance, while it is not well put, there is a reasonable point being made. Which is “I can’t afford steel”.
      My answer:
      Whether you choose to live up to my standards or not is up to you- I don’t mind one way or the other. But if you were to attend my school, you would be provided with a steel sword and a fencing mask on loan for as long as necessary until you buy your own. For some students that’s one day, for others, several years.
      Nylon costs 70 dollars or so; steel swords start at only around 200 for this one.
      A fencing mask of decent quality is also around 150 dollars.
      Most of my students do most of their training with this much kit. You can see dozens of videos of the training I’m talking about here.
      If you are going to fence your friends, then you’ll need additional gear: gambeson or similar, elbow and knee pads, gorget and gauntlets. Yes this all costs money, but no-one is asking for a grand up front. Not least as there is a lot of scope for sharing equipment- so long as the group as a whole has two full sets of kit, then everyone who can fit into it can spar.
      But fighting your friends with plastic swords should not be confused with the practice of historical swordsmanship as I define it. The two activities are practically unrelated.
      At the end of the day: one cannot ride a bike without a bike: one cannot practice swordsmanship without a sword.

      1. I own a pair of the “Practical Hand-and-a-Half Sword” swords from Cas Hanwei. Unless they have changed significantly since I purchased mine, there is no way I would trust a mere gambeson to protect me from a thrust thrown while sparing at full speed.

        Looking through your longsword videos I noticed a distinct lack of exercises using anything more than 1/2 speed for cuts and 1/4 speed for thrusts. This troubles me.

        Simply put, slow speed drills cheat timing. They make actions appear to work that, at full speed, turn out be seriously flawed. Aside from “instant replays”, I have all but given up on reduced speeds drills. They have led me astray far too many times.

        So back to my original point. Thrusting is an essential component of the Italian and German longsword systems. Therefore a simulator needs to be usable at speed, in sparing conditions, for me to consider it a viable substitute for the nylon sword I hate so much.

  13. So we aren’t talking 200 for a usable sword. The entry price is $500, or really a thousand as you need at least two for the club.

    Looking at those videos, I’m starting to have doubts about your claims to the superiority of steel. In the WMAW 2011 video I’m not seeing anything in the way of windings or thrusts from the bind. Had the fighter in black not been so hesitant to thrust from long point when the red fencer’s sword was offline I would think I was watching my classmates.

    The WMAW 2009 video looks somewhat better. But there isn’t a single non-grappling action in the WMAW 2009 video that I didn’t give or receive at least once last week using nylons. And I don’t mean vaguely similar, I mean everything was identical from the footwork to the angle of the blade. Which really isn’t surprising since we are working from the same set of source material.

    You’ve convinced me steel can be safe, but now I’m wondering if steel may be inferior in some ways. Without a sword in hand I can only speculate, but it seems to me that such a narrow blade is going to trace a much smaller arc when being rotated. I don’t know if this will affect the actions such as the winds, but I would be really surprised if it didn’t.

    Anyways, back to the main point. If you want to maintain the claim that “one cannot practice swordsmanship without a [steel] sword” you are going to have to show me something that I’m not doing right now with nylons.

  14. For the record, I’d much rather fence someone with plastics than wooden wasters. The only thing that wasters do is encourage a false sense of security. They are far more dangerous than either nylon *or* steel; about the only thing that’s more dangerous is a sharp.

    We do have to accept a certain amount of distortion in any practice of the art. We only play at it, no matter how earnest our play is. In that light, I keep an open mind on the use of nylon in training.

    I can certainly see some utility in, for example, sword versions of bag drills in which we throw attacks at a moving target. Because there is no blade contact, the material is immaterial to the practice, but it allows a wider safety margin for the person holding the target, which in turn means they can push the sword wielder much closer to the edge of their ability.

    As for aesthetics, gustibus non est disputandum; but I urge those whose sensibilities have been inflamed by this post to take it in the mildly tongue in cheek manner in which it was intended.

  15. Guy – Well stated. In ARMA we had an early, short, bad experience with plastic and quickly abandon them. A major problem we notice among all brands of plastic swords was that they all flex in the edge-to-edge plane, very strange to see in a video a sword flat on to the viewer yet the point is dipping down or turned up. While visiting Brain Prices group in Dallas a couple of years ago I was watch some sparring during which two plastic sword impacted and the top forth of one blade snapped off. Another thing we didn’t like was that they stung like Hell on the skin. I often joked that getting hit with a waster or blunt steel is like getting the belt from your father and getting hit with a PSLO is like getting slapped by your mother. I also used a plastic buckler until a 68′ 300lb kid hit it and left me holding only the handle.

    Ran Pleasant

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