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Higgins Arms and Armor Museum


Kevin Colwell
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OK - today is my birthday, so this weekend Lori and I went to the Higgins Museum in Worcester, Mass.

 

There is a fantastic collection of armor. Also, a lot of pole arms - halberds,spears, pikes, javelins, glaives.

 

There were relatively less swords than polearms, but I think that is reflective of the fact that swords were secondary weapons in war.

 

On display were two original Viking style swords, and one of them had visible pattern-welding in the core.

 

Here are the things I learned from looking at these originals up-close.

 

1. The fullers are flat -- they are barely there in the originals. They are not the crisp and deep things a lot of you guys can make, at least not most of them.

 

2. Not every blade was made symmetrical and perfectly, there is a wide range of precision, especially in the pole arms.

 

3. The blades are THIN.

 

4. The points, even the ones that are diamond cross-section on a halberd, are also THINNER THAN EXPECTED. The halberd and glaive blades were never more than 1/4" thick, at the base. And, they tapered a lot! The spine backing the cutting region of the pole arms was about .125", and the spine backing a thrusting weapon like a small sword was about .25" to about .35" near the tip.

 

I think that I have fallen into the trap of thinking that things have to be "overbuilt." Much of what I saw there was made using a lot less metal than I have tended toward. Honestly most everything looked to me like, if not tempered just right, it would bend when thrust into someone. It looked as if it would become bent by the thrashing of fighting or by being struck on the flat of the blade (if that happened)...

 

 

Also, I bought signed copy of William R. Short's Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques.

 

The author regularly comes to the museum, I am told, where he gives demonstrations of Viking combat techniques and visits with those who care.

 

I hope to make it back to meet him and discuss pattern-welded blades. Unfortunately, the lovely young woman working on Sunday was familliar with swords and seemed into re-enactment, but did not know anyting about making them.

 

The book is full of photographs by the forum's own JEFF PRINGLE! Way to go Jeff!

 

Anyway - I reccommend going there if you are in the Boston area. It is great to see so much historical stuff up close. Most of the pole arms and daggers are just hanging on the wall with no ropes to separate you (don't touch, though).

 

Also, you can take pics, but I did not expect to be able, so... .

 

The lesson - the historical stuff used as little steel as possible to get the job done, so for those of you who are new (like me) THINK THIN!!!!. Modern fighting knives are thicker than the blades on halberds!

Edited by Kevin (The Professor)

please visit my website http://www.professorsforge.com/

 

“Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” E. V. Debs

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Kevin.

I haven't been to the Higgins in a while .... thanks for the prod. It is worthy of more than one visit...

 

And Happy Birthdaybiggrin.gif

Dick

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Many of those blades were made so they would slip between gaps in armour. They are actually thin enough that they'll flex under their own weight.

 

Also one thing to remember when looking at originals, chunks of metal that are hundreds of years old have obviously rusted and corroded and possibly been re-polished ( the victorians liked to do this) so that in some instances its impossible to know what the original thickness and weight should have been.

 

The Higgins is definitely a favorite for me since you can get so close and not only can you take pics but you can use your flash!

 

Grant

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um wasn't most stuff that was specifically made to defeat armor thicker to make its own holes some tanto like objects for instance were real thick like bar stock thick with just a point for armor use

Brandon Sawisch bladesmith

 

eagles may soar but weasels don't get sucked in to jet engines

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Those items certainly exist, however they're more the exception I think. Bear in mind armour was the defense for 800 or so years. So almost every weapon had to deal with it in some way. You can either use brute force to penetrate the plate or use finesse to slip into gaps. For swords thats generally how they dealt with it, by having the top 1/3 of the blade or so razor sharp, thin and flexible.

Every culture was doing things different though. Same goes for time period as well. What I'm referring to is plate armour ( what I generally think about when talking about the Higgins :) )

 

Grant

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Thanks for comments.

 

I wasn't talking about the rusted and corroded stuff, I meant that the well preserved stuff was thinner than most people would think.

 

On the polearms, there would often be a narrow blade, a fairly thin spike, and then a hammer head or a thick spike. The blades were thin (from the iron and steel all the way back to the Greek bronze). Same with the Japanese swords (just two on display).

 

Even the swords designed to punch through armor were thinner in cross-section than I expected, same with the rondels.

 

I wish I had known that they allow photog.

 

kc

please visit my website http://www.professorsforge.com/

 

“Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” E. V. Debs

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Yup. On the thin, that is. That's why it's vitally important to be able to examine original artifacts. I ran in to that a lot when I was doing Kentucky rifles. New ones made by folks who have never held an original are always about 1/4" too thick in all dimensions. When you think you have removed enough material, take off some more. ;) Most original swords weigh less than two pounds/~900 grams. Some Viking swords and late two-handers are heavier, but they are the exception. Light and fast kept one alive, heavy and slow helped one exit this mortal coil.

 

I have not been to the Higgins, but I have seen a travelling show of their stuff.

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My interest in blades has been Japanese and as far as those is concern the thickness for antiques varies depending on how many times they have been polished but long blades average 3/8 of an inch. When I started to look at European blades (from Spain) and was also shocked by how thin they were. Even the well kept ones made for kings.

Enjoy life!

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thanks Jesus - I am not at all an expert on Japanese blades. The point about how many times they have been polished was not something I would have thought of. Thanks for the insight.

 

I should have been more precise - the two Japense swords on display were thicker than most of the blades for European swords and polearms, however, they were still not as thick as I had imagined.

 

By the way - it was one of the short videos you have showing yourself using a press in the forging of a tanto or wakizashi that convinced me I really needed a press. I think I even have the same model (or very simillar).

 

I appreciate your work (and several other Japanese-tradition smiths) very much. I personally could not excel in that form.

 

take care,

Kevin

Edited by Kevin (The Professor)

please visit my website http://www.professorsforge.com/

 

“Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” E. V. Debs

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Yes, the dimensions of edged weapons from earliest times is an endlessly fascinating subject!

 

I constantly find myself amazed at what I see. You come across geometries that are both more substantial and finer than you might expect. Reinforced points can be *very* reinforced. Slim blades can be *very* slim and thin (where it matters). They knew how to work with gradual and varying distal taper to retain stiffness in an otherwise very thin and seemingly flimsy blade.

 

Below I´ll post some images of blade details for your enjoyment.

 

First is a Gladius from the 1st C AD of the Pompeii style. This is the last and perhaps most mature of the short swords designs used by roman legions. It is not uncommon to see these rather advanced reinforced points on these blades.

IMGP2402.jpg

 

Next is a nice and slim spatha blade (the roman long sword) that may date from the second or perhaps third C AD. It is something along the same lines in regards of the point, but this one is perhaps even more elegantly designed and crafted:

DSC02365.jpg

DSC02364.jpg

 

Yet another roman sword, but this time with more normal design solution of the point. A medium sturdy solution, good for both cutting and thrusting:

IMG_3526.jpg

IMG_3527.jpg

 

A late medieval long sword, or sword of war of Oakeshott type XX. This type has an overall lenticular cross section broken up in parallel fullers or groves down the blade. That is why the point looks facetted. The fullers re cut in such a way that the point becomes reinforced as the last bevel s cut to sharpen the point, it becomes shaped like an awl to make penetration easier:

DSC02900.jpg

DSC02899.jpg

 

And last the point of a gentleman´s side sword from the 16th C. It is thin and light in the point for lightning quick slashes and thrusts. The edge on this blade is pretty similar to that of a fillet knife. Very thin and sharp. Despite being very thin in the point, the blade retains some stiffness from the sturdier proportions of the base of the blade. A very effective distal taper.

DSC02999.jpg

DSC03000.jpg

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  • 2 weeks later...

I ran into some of the Higgins collection here in DC a couple years ago, at the local Shakespeare theater. I was amazed then, as well, at the thinness of ancient work. It has reinforced my view that most bladesmiths, who start their work with 1/4 inch stock, end up with 1/4 inch knives these days because they simply don't know what else to do - I also blame the ABS tests a bit for the tendancy to overbuild.

 

I also see the thinness and delicate forging in the Viking work I've come across. Jeff's collection is growing, and excellent in nature, and the couple pieces I have further illustrate the economy of metal in ancient times. This stuff was expensive, even into pre-industrial America, and making a blade with the exact amount of material needed to do the job was an art that I'm still not convinced we've rediscovered effectively. A few threads here hint at it, but on the whole, our work is still bulky compared to historical examples... save some of the most excellent and well researched ones.

 

Thin is in.

The Tidewater Forge

Christopher Price, Bladesmith

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There is actually a wonderful collection from the Smithsonian on display right now. Interestingly the Smithsonian does not normally have edged weapons on display. There is a display of weapons that the indians could have faced from colonists in the Museum of the American Indian. It is worth the visit just to see this collection.

 

It may be a long time before the Smithsonian ever has edged weapons on display again.

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IIRC, Kerry, those have been there for a while now - over 2 years, if memory serves - it may be a permanent display in that building.

Edited by Christopher Price

The Tidewater Forge

Christopher Price, Bladesmith

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