Swords and daggers may have had a macabre function, but many designs from home and abroad were beautifully made from fine materials.
Towards the end of the 19th century the British Empire had become an Aladdin's
cave for many of its administrators and soldiers, most of whom came from
families who had never travelled abroad before. Naturally, they returned home with
souvenirs and the most appropriate memento for a soldier was a sword or dagger -
particularly if it been won from an adversary. Given the vast range of the Empire, many thousands of swords and daggers from all over the world found their way back to Britain.
Despite countless variations in the grip and hand-guard on a sword's hilt, the weapon has changed remarkably little since its Bronze Age
origins. Essentially, a sword is designed to do three things: cut, thrust and parry. And
changing fashions in warfare and armour have at times long, cutting weapons
have been used while at others short, thrusting ones were the order of the day.
It was in Renaissance Italy and Spain that swordsmanship became a truly scientific skill. The weapon used by soldier and civilian alike
was the long, sharp-pointed rapier with its guard of intricately entwined bars. Often, a matching dagger was made to partner the sword and this was used left-handed in combat.
Later, during the 16th and 17th centuries, the level of craftsmanship involved in their manufacture was exquisite and these swords are now rare and highly prized museum pieces. Almost equally fine, though, are many of the small swords and daggers once carried by 18th century gentlemen. These were not often used, being little more than ornaments worn to set off a shapely calf.
By Victorian times, only serving officers, and diplomats continued to wear
swords as a part of daily dress. The sword was fast disappearing from the battlefield too.
Only the cavalry regularly used swords on active service and, surprisingly, even these
swords had a poor reputation. Complaints came back to the manufacturers after every campaign: the Crimea they failed to pierce
the Russian greatcoat, in the Sudan they simply bent. Many blades were imported from Solingen in the North Rhineland, a small town which for centuries had produced swords reckoned to be the finest in Europe, but results were no better. Not until 1908 was a 'perfect' design produced, but by then it was too late.
The Victorian collector cared little for British weapons unless they had some special historical connection, but a lot of interest was focused on swords and daggers from abroad especially after 1850 when Europeans realized that in Japan the sword was still held in greater regard than it had ever been in the Christian or Islamic world. Until 1876, the Samurai still went about their daily business armed with the two swords which symbolized their class. Each of these fine swords exhibited dazzling craftsmanship and the loss of one was equated with the loss of the soul.
SWORD COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Swords and daggers can most easily be found in specialist shops selling military memorabilia. They also come up at auction, often in lots containing other military pieces.
Only by handling a number of weapons can you begin to form an idea of what makes a good sword. Balance and feel are hard to define precisely, and such qualities only make themselves known through experience. However, reproduction and fake swords are common and there are a few pointers to look for to distinguish these from the real thing.
If you decide to collect European or British military swords, then recognition should be quite easy, for the simple reason that armed forces liked to label equipment clearly. It is rare to find a 19th-century sword with no information on it at all. There is almost always something engraved or stamped on the hilt or blade. Numbers or letters, for example, usually give details of regiment, or the original owner's rank and initials. If it has nothing else, an officer's sword should at least carry the cipher of the reigning monarch, though in the case of Victoria's 64-year reign this won't help you date the sword precisely.
Detailed reference books are an essential aid to recognizing and dating military swords, but even they cannot cover every example. Some you may come across may not match any pattern, though this is not necessarily a problem as a sword may have been made up to individual specification. Swords also wore out and sometimes a new grip, blade, or even a whole new hilt, was fitted.
Beware, though, of components that do not marry up well. The grips of officers' swords were almost always made of fish-skin, while lower ranks made do with leather. Look also for genuine signs of wear, on the grip and blade particularly. Fakes of very old swords, like rapiers, do exist and these may turn up with hilts that have been clearly cast in a mould rather than showing the carefully finished hammered and chiselled metalwork of genuine pieces.
Finally, test the blade. A real sword, as opposed to a reproduction, will have a firm feeling stiff blade. Copiers tend to use cheaper, untempered steel blades and these flex unduly and bend out of shape easily.
The traditional way of hanging swords for display is crossed and bare-bladed, as if to emulate their use in battle. Many of these weapons, though, were never used in combat but were made simply as dress-swords.