Spent the morning curled up with coffee and AVB Norman. It’s interesting to look at the large collection of different hilts, and see them in a new light. I’ve fenced with many swords, and I used to be a welder…I’ve smithed my share of things, including a hilt or two. I can look at those centuries of hilts not with the eye of a curator, but with the dual eyes of a maker and a user.
The maker does what he was taught to do, and stretches out past that into things he enjoys making, or feels that he has a knack for creating. Once in a rare while, he makes something just for pure pleasure. Mostly, though…you have to make a living. You make what people want. If they like a particular hilt that you make, you are going to be making a lot of that kind of hilt. You’ll make little changes from time to time, and customers will request variations, but mostly…you do what you are known for. So I can look at the history of hilt development and see the network of craftsmen living in and being a part of their environment. I can infer some things about that environment by seeing how things change over time, but you can lose a lot of perspective by having too much perspective. Changes seem obvious from our end of things, but each smith lived in their own time. He didn’t necessarily see each hilt and sword as being an improvement over the past, as much, perhaps, as he saw them as just being what he did well.
The user is different, but still part of the same social soliton. You bought what was available, which was what the smith usually made, which was probably not too different from everything else he made. Or if you had the means, you might buy what the smith wanted to make. Either way, your main concern was being able to use the thing. I may be in the minority, but I believe swords were probably used the same way guns are by gun owners today…mostly for fun. Sparring, stupid games, competitions. They still had to be ready for self-defense or use in service, but I bet most swordplay was for fun of one kind or another. Sort of like it is today, I suppose.
So looking at all those hilts, you can really put your mind towards how they must have handled. Not just in holding it in the air and waving it about and saying “gosh! Neat sword!” but in an earnest bout. Those tiny little details, the weird little nobs and projections, all served a purpose. And each user had to know that purpose, and how to take advantage of it. Or possibly more importantly, how to overcome it’s disadvantages.
Hang out with a enough modern rapier fighters, and you will run across the finger meme. This is the common thought that the guard on the sword one owns is inadequate, because they get hit in the fingers too often. The only real reason they mention this is because they have seen people with cup hilts or shell hilts, and think…aha! That’s the solution! And sometimes it is the hilt…not so much the openness of the hilt, as much as the design. If the hilt isn’t balanced right for the user, the actions needed for close defense might seem impossible to pull off. Sometimes…
More coverage isn’t usually the right solution. Consider the design of the smallsword hilt…a very thrust oriented weapon, it used a very small guard. You’d think they would use a full cup hilt or something, but no. They feature some of the smallest guard seen on swords since the advent of sweeps. Sure, they protect the fingers and little bit of the hand, but not that much. The method of use provides the protection, and the hilt design supports the method of use.
If your hand is being hit with your current hilt, you aren’t using the right method for your sword, or for you. Sure, if you have the funds you can buy a new sword, but unless you have access to a real smith who can work with you to make a custom hilt that suits you perfectly, you will find new issues with a new blade. Spend the time and effort and learn to use the weapon in your hand they way it wants to be used. Adapt to suit the sword. You’ll learn more valuable lessons about fencing that way than you will by looking for a shortcut to defense. And if you ever get the perfect sword, you will really know why it’s perfect just for you…