Below is some information to help you decide what sword to purchase and why some cost more than others. Everone knows the old saying "You Get What You Pay For", but it is difficult to know unless you learn a little bit about what is involved in making a sword. Some swords are designed to hang on the wall, so they tend to be cheaper to make as they do not need to be as strong as a "Battle-Ready" sword. Some are designed for re-enactment so are not sharp but still have the properties of a "Battle-Ready" sword. But to complicate things further there are also degrees of "Battle-Ready". It is difficult to go into every avenue of sword making but i will try to give you an overview of what it takes to make one and what you can expect to find on the market.
Whats is a sword blade made from?
Wall Hanger/Fantasy/Display swords are generally made from stainless steel so they are easy to look after and stay bright any shiny with little maintenence. Stainless Steel is basically made from an alloy of Iron, Carbon and Chromium (Around 10% or more) providing it with its "Stainless" quality. It does this by forming a fine layer of Chromium Oxide that does not allow Oxygen to bond with the Iron mollecules (Rust), preventing further deterioration. The problem with this is that Chromium causes the steel to become somewhat hard and brittle. Now "Battle Ready" swords need to be hard but they also need to be tough to resist breaking on the field, so the last thing you want is brittle. So Ideally Stainless Steel is not a good type of steel to use on a "Real" sword, but it is easier and more cost effective to make a blade out of as there is no need to heat treat it. However there are of course a few exceptions to this rule. Without going into too much detail, if you use the correct alloy of Stainless, combined with an experienced knowledge of Heat Treatment, it is possible to make a sword from Stainless. But it is the general consensis of the blade world that it is not a good medium to make Swords out of.
Battle Ready swords tend to be made of Carbon Steel, but this is a pretty broad term because to be called Steel at all it has to have carbon! To help us understand what this means we need to know what goes into to Steel. It is basically Iron with an alloy of Carbon (0.2~2.0 percent or more) and also any number of elements such as Chromium, Manganese, Nickel, Vanadium etc. The main thing we are interested in is that it contains carbon, ideally around 0.5~0.7 percent, which is more commonly known as Spring Steel. When Heat Treated correctly this gives the sword a hard edge holding characteristic combined with a tough structure that resists breaking. But this takes time, and we all know that time is money, so this will explain a portion of the greater cost.
Some of the alloying elements can also be used to make a sword stronger. This is why we have steels like L6 tool steel which has manganese, nickel, chromium and molybdenum which provides a hard and tough blade but with the added cost to make.
This is one of the most important factors involved in the making of a Battle Ready sword. By heating a blade to a cherry red hue or around 1000 degrees celsius or more and then quickly quenching it in a trough of water, the blade becomes quite hard and brittle. Once it has cooled the blade is then reheated to a blue hue or 350 degrees celsius for an hour or so and allowed to cool slowly preferably within the coals used for heating. This de-stresses the blade from the water quenching and softens it a little making it tough and resiliant but hard enough to hold an edge. There is a cheaper alternative to this usually done by heating the blade to 1000 degrees celsius or more and quenching in a vat of oil. While this alternative saves time and money, and does create quite a tough and hard blade, it is much preferred to use the two step method as it is stronger. Also some more expensive alloy steels need more carefull heat treating (two step), but produce very tough yet very hard blades.
With some Japanese swords they take this one step further by differentially heat treating the blade. They take a slurry of clay and lay a thin layer, maybe 5mm over the surface of the blade leaving it bare on the front edge. After the clay has dried the sword is heated to around 800 degrees celsius and then quenched edge first into a water trough. The quick cooling of the front edged causes the steel to become hard, while the clay insulated rear portion of the blade remains quite soft comparitively. As an interesting side note it is at this stage where the sword inherits its characteristic curve. It is then reheated to around 150 degrees celcius and quenched again tempering the blade and de-stressing the edge. This process may be repeated several times.
The whitish area on the edge is the product of differential heat treating, this area is made up of Martensite and Pearlite structure which is very hard and has good edge retention characteristics. However it can be very brittle and easy to chip, so sword on sword contact is not advised.
Distal Taper is perhaps the most important feature of a Real sword, but is the least achieved in the reproduction market. This tapering is of the blade thickness, thickest at the hilt, thinning toward the tip. Particularly important to European swords as these are designed to be neutrally balanced, meaning that it is neither blade heavy or hilt heavy aiding thier aim in thrusting moves. They are generally around 7mm thick at the cross guard tapering to around 3mm or less around 50mm from the tip. This combined with the counter balance, known as the pommel creates the neutral feel and relatively light weight, around 1~1.2kg for single handed swords, 1.2~1.4kg hand and half, 1.4~2kg two handed. By contrast the Japanese, Cavalry and most curved blades tend to be slightly blade heavy as this assists them in their slashing motion. They have less distal taper, in the case of Japanese swords, 8mm at the Habaki to 6mm around 50mm from the tip and do not have a large counterbalance. The weights are generally a little less, around .8~1kg for single hand, 1~1.2kg two handed. Some blades actually have the distal taper hidden in the groove so that when viewing the thickness it appears to be almost the same from grip to tip. But when closely inspected the groove or fuller takes away a large ammount of metal from the tip region giving it that "feel", light yet rigid.
The problem with distal taper is that it is difficult and time consuming to achieve, and some manufacturers don't even know of the theory. It adds to the cost of manufacture so it may not be economically viable to make within certain price ranges. So the vast majority of display and cheaper swords do not have it, have enough of it and are usually heavy and/or unwieldy. Some manufacturers cheat and make the entire blade somewhat thinner to achieve the same "Feel", but these blades tend to wobble when struck and have bad harmonics.
Above is a pic of a Japanese sword which clearly shows the distal taper. This particular blade has quite a bit of distal taper which gives it a fairly neutral feel for a curved sword.
The tang is the part of the blade which attaches to the hilt or handle of the sword and is very inportant in deciding weather or not a blade is "Real".
Rat Tail Tang
This is the most common of tang types and is found on fantasy/display/cheap swords and knives . It is usually a mild steel threaded rod welded to a tab on the blade just inside the cross guard. This allows for the handle to be bolted onto the blade with a cap then glued in place over the bolt. Sometimes the pommel is threaded and it is screwed down onto the handle to hold it in place. Rat Tail Tangs are cheap and easy to make and are Completely Unsuitable for Practical Use. They are prone to bending and breaking and should never be used for cutting practice or kata.
Above you can see the threaded rod welded to the blade and the various handle parts. It takes little imagination to see how this could go wrong if you tried to use it.
This is a less common type and is sometimes found on mid priced and semicustom swords. As the name suggests the tang continues unjoined three quarters the way throught the handle and has a threaded rod welded onto the end. Some manufacturers thread the actual tang and this is considered much stronger than welded. Welded 3/4 tangs are acceptable for practical thrusting swords like Rapier and the like as there is little sideways force applied to the blades in combat. However it is not recommended for practical cutting swords as the weld is prone to stress and may fail under combat. When the tang itself is threaded correctly, it is quite suitable for full combat and cutting practice.
This tang type is more suited to thrusting swords like Rapier.
This type of tang is what is generally considered a must for all cutting swords, be it Japanese, Chinese or European. The blade must be of a single piece and continue almost the entire way through the handle with no welds or joins. There is a great amount of stress on the tang when cutting and it must be wide and thick to cope. Full tangs can be found on all of our practical blades and are a must for re-enactment swords also.
Japanese sword Tang.
The tang on this European sword goes the whole way through the pommel and is peened over to hold the handle and parts together. Alot of manufacturers will also glue the handle parts to be sure.
If you have any doubts on glue holding a sword handle together, you will be surprised to hear that tulwars have an interesting way of securing blade to handle. The entire hilt is made of iron or steel (usually in different pieces) with a space left for the tang to fit inside the handle. The space is then filled with a heated resin and while hot, the blade is inserted into the handle and left to cool. The resin sets hard and the blade cannot be moved. Pretty scary stuff but it seems to have worked!
This term is used to let us know that a sword is Sharp. However just because a blade is sharp it doesn't necessarily mean that it can be used. To be able to be used it must be made of the correct material and must also be heat treated and be full tang as previously discussed. Another much over looked prerequisite is handle strength.
Fantasy swords, movie replicas and the like are designed to hang on the wall and look good. That's all they do, so little attention is paid to the blade, fittings and handle strength. Why bother? these things raise the price tag and most purchasers don't care to use these types of swords. So the handles are cast from cheap "White Metal", usually zinc alloy or similar. It looks great, is easy to cast and cheap to manufacture. But the problem with these cheap alloys are that they are brittle and cannot cope with the stress of cutting. That is why our ancestors used something a little stronger. Like iron/steel, brass, copper alloys like bronze and others that resisted breakage and lasted for many years longer. But it doesn't stop there.
The actual grip is made of timber, which is then wrapped in a myriad of different bindings, leathers etc. all designed to add strength. Traditional Japanese Nihonto handles are two pieces of timber glued together with a cutout in both halves to accept the tang. It is then fitted with the Fuchi and Kashira which are hollow to accept and add strength to the timber handle. The handle is then fully wrapped in Rayskin with the joins offset to the joins in the timber. This is then wrapped in a silk cord which is very tightly bound and knotted at the ends to stop it coming undone. It is very important that the binding is extremely tight as it adds much strength to the handle. European swords were again made of timber usually of two halves but sometimes of a single piece which is burnt onto the handle by heating the tang. This was then cord bound very tightly and then wrapped in leather with a sewn seam. Some were wrapped in Rayskin or fishskin then bound with wire, which you can mainly find on military swords. All this is done to make the handle stronger and to make it last longer. However this is when sword purchasing becomes tricky!! Not all Live blade swords are made equal. Some blades are bound loosely and with substandard binding. Some do not have full rayskin wraps but instead have panels. Price is a deciding factor and must be taken into account when purchasing.