Weight, Effort and Force

“How heavy is that sword?”

Perhaps that most common question I get, week in and week out. And I usually answer with the weight of the sword, all the while knowing that that information isn’t really what the client needs. What the client is asking is actually how heavy does the sword feel, and for that I have three answers.

Weight is the mass of the object. Put a hammer on a scale and you know the weight. Hold the hammer by the head and you can confirm that. But when you hold the hammer by the handle, all of a sudden it seems a lot heavier, and after a while your hand will feel the strain. That’s because holding a hammer by the handle requires more effort to keep it from falling to the ground compared to holding it from the head.

A scale will give you the weight of the sword, to be sure. Let’s say it’s a Veneto, one of our lighter swords, outfitted with an epee blade and a cap-nut on the end – no pommel. The total weight of the sword is only 13 ounces.

But the balance point of any sword is not right in your hand. It’s a few inches down on the blade. Not as much as a hammer, but when you hold a sword, the blade wants to dip toward the floor. Your hand has to grasp the sword a little bit tighter in order for the sword not to fall, more so than if you were holding a 13 ounce ball. This apparent weight is described as effort, and for this particular sword the effort is a little over two pounds, 2.2 lbs to be exact.

Sometimes, on that same Veneto, I’ll put a 4 ounce pommel instead of a cap-nut. Total weight of the sword is now 17 ounces. But the balance point has shifted, so the effort in holding the sword is now 1.7 lbs. The sword is 4 ounces heavier, but feels a half pound lighter!

The balance point of any sword is affected by many things: the weight of the pommel, the length of the grip, the shape of the guard, etc. For example, we build two styles of swept hilt rapiers. The Gossamer Swept and the Standard Swept are made of identical components and weigh exactly the same on the scale. But the particular sweep of the steel forming the hand guard shifts the balance point on the swords. So even with the same pommel and same handle length, the Standard Swept requires an effort of 6 lbs, but the Gossamer Swept only 4 ½ lbs.

Let’s go to the other end of the spectrum. The biggest sword I have is the five foot Bannockburn. It weighs 6 ½ lbs [ I know. You thought it was going to be a lot more, didn’t you? ] The balance on this behemoth is pretty good, but the effort to hold it is still a bit over 29 lbs. I also carry short steel maces, less than two feet long and weigh only 2 ½ lbs. But the balance on a mace is so far away from the hand that the effort on it is almost 33 lbs.

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So far we have only been talking about the sword as a static object. But swords are swung, and when they are we compound the weight by adding speed. The faster it moves, the more difficult to stop. And whatever momentum isn’t removed by the actor doing the swinging, his partner will have to by blocking. The amount of energy that has to be stopped by the partner’s block is force.

I am sorry to say that in the vast majority of theatres and schools, actors are allowed to use (or are actually taught) cutting motions with incorrect technique. Swings are coming in way too hot, and their partners are forced to make their blocks in order to stop the incoming swords. I have described in another page on how to cut correctly. It is prudent to take a look at that, and to include daily exercises so that cutting motions are always performed under control. Why? Because I’m not talking about stopping three or four pounds of steel from striking an actor’s arm. When we combine velocity to mass, we get force, and the numbers are shocking.

weapon blade weight effort force force force
[in pounds] [bad form] [good technique] [good technique
& good targeting]
Veneto demi-epee 0.8 2.2 4,866 41 0
Gossamer epee 2.7 4.5 5,702 25 0
Bannockburn zweihander 6.5 29.3 7,425 67 0
Combat mace 2.5 32.5 5,625 366 0

I want you to read that chart again, because those numbers are not typo’s. When someone grabs even the lightest sword and swings away, it can generate impact forces of thousands of pounds at the impact site. The light epee blade can’t withstand that force: it will bend and sooner or later break, so it might break skin but probably won’t break anyone’s bones. The heavier, stiffer blades are not nearly so self-sacrificing. A rapier can crack a rib: a broadsword can snap a leg like a twig.

Look how the numbers drop when correct technique is used. And if you add correct target placement, that number can drop to nearly zero.