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Swords designed by modern swordsmiths which are directly inspired by real medieval history tend to fall into one of three categories. Firstly, ‘battle’ swords, which draw historical inspiration from a particular engagement, conflict or war. Secondly, broadly faithful historical replicas of specific famous historical swords, usually associated with specific historical individuals. And finally, speculative swords that reflect the legendary, mythical or lost swords of the medieval period. We’ll have a look at some examples of the real medieval events, people and myths which have inspired some modern historical swords for sale, and we’ll see how these can compliment your re-enactment impression or LARP outfit. These historical swords can be particularly effective in creating a roleplaying character, since they take inspiration from the medieval period, with enough license to bring an air of the fantastic to your outfit.
Buyer’s Guide to Historical Swords
The usual rules of sword purchasing still apply when looking at historical swords for sale. The materials and construction that you choose will be partially determined by what you intend the sword to be used for.
A sword that you intend to be used in partial or full combat should be made from high-carbon steel (ideally stainless steel or spring steel), and should have a ‘full tang construction’ where the blade is properly secured to the grip by a tang running its whole length. These swords are often advertised as ‘battle-ready’ – but please read the specifics carefully! Some manufacturers use a three-category system for ‘battle-ready’ swords: Category A swords are tempered, resilient, professional grade suitable for hard re-enactment use; Category B weapons are more wallet-friendly, but are less hard than Cat A should only be used against other Cat B swords; Category C swords are still high-carbon steel weapons, but they come with no guarantees with regards to combat. They will also often list the type of steel used to forge the blade, usually using a four-digit number on the SAE classification: popular grades include 5160 and 6150 (high-quality chromium spring steel), and 1075 (hard high-carbon steel).
For non-contact display weapons for use in roleplay, more economical materials and construction are safe to be used: mild-steel is a popular cheap blade material, and partial-tang swords are acceptable (but remember: you should never even swing a sword that doesn’t have a full tang). Once you’ve determined what you’ll be using the blade for and the appropriate materials and construction, then all you need to do is decide which compliments your re-enactment or LARP outfit!
Modern sword makers often take inspiration from a particular conflict or war to inform their designs. Often the construction and type of the blade, the shape and style of the crossguard, and the pommel, will all be related in some way to the event: for example, recreating the blade style dominant at the time, with decoration and hilt style that reflect contemporary fashions. However, high-quality weapons using modern manufacturing techniques and construction are often far superior to anything that was available in the medieval period – modern steels are much purer, are alloyed to prevent rust, etc. Hence why we should consider them ‘inspired by’ history rather than faithful reproductions of historical swords.
Let’s take ourselves a historical battle and make a sword for it. The Battle of Crécy was fought outside of the French port-town of Calais in 1346, in the early phases of the series of conflicts between France and England that are known as the Hundred Years’ War. At this battle, the English were significantly outnumbered by the French army which had prevented the English from linking up with an allied Flemish force, forcing the English to take a defensive position on a hillside. The French force consisted mostly of heavily armoured mounted men-at-arms, who would have worn mail, as well as varying amounts of plate armour. Whilst most of the English force were Welsh and English longbowmen, their few thousand men-at-arms fought dismounted, and would have been similarly outfitted in an assortment of mail and plate. The cutting-edge in sword technology at the time was a slender, fast arming sword with a narrow fullered blade that tapered evenly from the hilt to a wickedly sharp point – it’s known as the ‘Type XVII’ sword, as per medievalist history Ewart Oakeshott’s sword typology. Swordmakers often draw inspiration from an individual sword: a stunning example of the Type XVII is the sword found on the riverbed of the Great Ouse at Ely, now in Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. It is of the correct date for the Battle of Crécy, and displays exactly the kind of blade type that would be the man-at-arms’ secret weapon, able to pierce the newly-acquired plate armour of his opponents. It was the English who carried the day at Crécy, the English longbowmen tying up and fragmenting the French mounted soldiers on the boggy ground below their defensive hill, for the English men-at-arms to wade in and scatter. To finish our Crécy sword, maybe we might wish to nod to the English who carried the day: perhaps we could inscribe the blade with a lion rampant and a fleur-de-lys, the symbols from victorious King Edward III’s heraldry.
There you have it! Such a sword is not necessarily a painstaking reproduction of a single historical object, but one inspired by the theme of the battle and the period more generally. As such, it doesn’t have to be incorporated faithfully into an exact period-copy, but it can be used as an accessory to a LARP outfit just as easily.
Historical Replica Swords
We are extremely lucky that a handful of swords that we can tie with specific historical individuals have survived into to the modern era – and they have given modern sword-makers fertile ground for creating faithful replicas, or as a starting point for interpretations.
Henry V’s Sword
Henry V, the victor of Agincourt and Harfleur, immortalised by Shakespeare’s hagiography, died suddenly in 1422 at the height of his power. He was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey (potentially with his supposed lover, Richard Courtenay, although that is a whole other story) – and, legend has it, Henry’s trusty sword was gilded and hung above his tomb. The sword reappeared in a forgotten chest in the Abbey four-and-a-half centuries later, in 1869. Oakeshott had the opportunity to examine this weapon, and he declared it “a magnificent fighting sword (bearing upon its still sharp edges much indication of use) which comes to life in one's hand”. He classified it of Type XVIII, a subtly tapering blade with a reinforcing central ridge instead of a fuller created by ‘hollow-grinding’ the blade into a slightly convex-diamond cross-section. This sword was adapted for both cutting and thrusting, and is finely balanced by a carefully weighted pommel made from both a solid iron wheel and thin iron brazed onto it.
As with all swords which claim to be ‘the Sword of X’, there is inevitably some murkiness to its provenance; recent research has suggested that it is more likely to date from the period of Henry VII, more than half a century after Henry V’s death – but the blade itself is so evocative that it has become the inspiration for many modern swordsmiths. Compromises are often made for the purposes of reproduction; most ‘Henry V’ reproduction swords have a diamond-shaped cross-section, foregoing the careful hollow-grinding of the blade, and whilst they are heavier and less agile, the finished product is significantly more affordable!
Charlemangne’s Swords: Joyeuse and the Sabre of Charlemagne
Charlemagne’s Frankish Renaissance, which looked very much to appropriate and duplicate the cultural and political forms of Rome, albeit with their own Frankish quality, marks his time as the hegemon of central Europe – shown most clearly in his adoption of the title of Holy Roman Emperor. And what does an Emperor, embodying the glory of Rome into the 9th-century, need most of all? A sword, is what! There are two swords which both claim to be personal swords of Charlemagne’s.
The first is known as Joyeuse, ‘Joyful’, taking its name from the sword of Charlemagne as described in the 11th-century Old French epic poem The Song of Roland, and it currently resides in the Louvre Museum in Paris. It is certainly an incredibly old sword; it formed part of the imperial regalia of the Kingdom of France, being used during the coronation of every French monarch from Philippe III the Bold in 1271 (as well as the coronation of Emperor Napoleon I). As with every sword of such great age, its crucial early life has big gaps, not least its disappearance for 400 years between Charlemagne’s death in 814 and the coronation of Philippe III. It has also clearly undergone significant alteration, and historians disagree as to its provenance in lieu of written sources. Laking, boringly, declares the sword to be wholly contemporary with Philippe III’s coronation, guessing that this sword likely wholly replaced the original Joyeuse – this would make sense, since Bold Phil would want to lay claim to an imagined glorious past. Our old friend Ewart Oakeshott (he of the sword Type classifications) sides with those who see an early origin of the sword, pointing out that the artistic style is completely different to any seen in the 13th-century. Interestingly, French archaeologist Marcel-August Dieualfoy noticed similarities between the hilt patterning of Joyeuse and the 7th-century Sassanian styles he had come across whilst undertaking fieldwork in Susa, in modern Iran – might a wannabe-Roman-Emperor either commission a Middle-Easterner or have his craftsman copy Middle Eastern styles, which would be his putative domain? This again reinforces the likelihood of its early origin.
The second is known simply as the ‘Sabre of Charlemagne’, which is a sumptuous sabre of Eurasian steppe origin, most likely Hungarian. Its known provenance is definitely older than that of Joyeuse, being part of the Aachen Regalia, the highest of relics which constituted the ‘crown jewels’ of the Holy Roman Empire (the direct line of monarchs from Charlemagne himself), from at least the 11th-century. Frustratingly, its early life is perhaps even less clear than that of Charlemagne’s other sword! One tradition has it that Holy Roman Emperor Otto III opened up Charlemagne’s tomb in 1000CE (correct for timings so far, if a bit of a weird flex), and found the sword buried with the body, returning it to the other relics of Charlemagne. Another says that Otto Nordheim was awarded the sword in the 1063 as a gift in return for military aid given to King Salamon of Hungary, presented to him as ‘the Sword of Atilla the Hun’. Others still maintain that it was both Atilla’s sword and Charlemagne’s sword, having been captured by Charlemagne during his campaigns against the Eastern European Avars in the 790s CE. Modern scholarship tends to date the stunning gold-inlaid blade to the first half of the 10th-century and of Turkish manufacture, thus ruling out any direct connection with Charlemagne, but its early inclusion in the Aachen Regalia gives it its own indelible magic.
Reproductions of these swords aren’t just useful for portraying the historical personages they are associated with: they are perfect for a LARP impression, being inspired by historical people and times, without being slavishly faithful to specific realities.
Finally, there are a whole tranche of speculative recreations of famous historical swords that are either lost to us, or wholly legendary. These often contain historical nods to the elements which we do know, with license for the sword designer to bring an element of fantasy.
Aside from the well-known examples of Excalibur (which itself was inspired by the ‘sword in the stone’ of San Galgano), a frequently imagined sword is Durendal, the sword of the semi-mythical Carolingian general Roland. Whilst the real Roland would likely have wielded a sword much like a Viking Age (or Frankish) sword, the reproductions tend to draw heavily for inspiration on the Old French legendary retelling of Roland’s life, the Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland), starting from the basis of an 11th-century cruciform knightly arming sword – and then going thoroughly off script! Durendal is said to have been able to separate huge boulders in a blow, and to have been the sharpest sword in existence – swordmakers incorporate visual cues to these fantastic properties, such as inscriptions and embellishments to the blade, jewel-encrusted hilt, and such. This makes these semi-fantastical swords an excellent bridge between a high-fantasy LARP and historical reality.
The Real-ish Thing
As we can see hear, historical swords themselves often have shaky relationships to their putative original owners – but that absolutely shouldn’t stop the creative license of sword-smiths and collectors, who can bring us as close to the originals with creative reinterpretation as the the artifacts themselves. They’re perfect to incorporate into LARP outfits, or for the right historical re-enactment outfit.