What defines a good sparring weapon? A common notion is that it should be as close as possible to the real, sharp weapon it simulates, but be designed with safety in mind, thus lowering the risk of permanent injury. However, since a sharp weapon is designed to injure, this is an inbuilt contradiction.
Due to this simple fact, safer weapons always have drawbacks since they just aren't supposed to perform the same way as real weapons. This has lead to various forms of solutions by different makers, both historically and in modern times.
Traditionally, there have been a few different solutions; wooden swords called wasters, non-sharpened blunt swords with a normal blade profile and a 2-3mm edge, and special fencing school longswords called federschwert, with a narrow rapier-like blade and more mass close to the cross, in the area called the schilt or the ricasso.
Note: The term "federschwert" is a neologism and it is only about a 100 years old, but is in such common use today, that I choose to use it, and although the term Parat Schwert, as Matt Galas has suggested, earlier appeared to be suitable, other evidence has shown that the term "Fechtschwert" is more appropriate. Still, the term federschwert or feder is in such common use today that there is really not reason not to use it.
If we look at the two primary concerns sword behavior and safety, these three categories all have their advantages and disadvantages which will affect how they can be used.
As a beginner, only practicing form and techniques, the wooden wasters work quite well. Also, some advanced fencers spar with these and appear to be happy with this, although it is outside of my own personal experience, since I have never had the chance to try a well-made wooden waster.
The wooden wasters are reasonably cheap and esthetically speaking they are nice and traditional. But, they have to be used with great care, since they offer little to no flex and can break with nasty splinters. Therefore, I would recommend these as sparring weapons for advanced fencers only. Also make sure to buy a wooden waster of good quality, since some are poorly balanced, behaving more like clubs than swords. Others are much better balanced and look quite nice, as can be seen above.
One thing that speaks for the wooden wasters is the fact that wooden wasters have been used traditionally for practicing sword fencing. Also, since "common" people have seen wooden swords used in Kenjutsu and other Asian sword fencing traditions, to them wooden wasters may be regarded as more serious than "plastic toy" swords, which perhaps can be relevant when meeting the public under certain circumstances. Then again, synthetic swords can look just as professional, in my opinion, especially when used right. Not to mention proper steel swords. It is all in the presentation...
However, seeing no personal need for a wooden waster, and due to the limitations involved in sparring, I will leave it to other reviewers to comment on this category of sparring swords.
To add to the non-steel swords, we now have a broad range of modern "wasters" that are no longer made of wood, but out of various blends of plastic and nylon.
These are often much more durable and, more and more, also have good flex in the blade, making them much safer for thrusting. This is hard to achieve with wooden wasters. These have quickly become very popular since they are fairly safe (although they still can break bones). They are often sold at competitive prices and can behave more like steel than most wooden wasters, which are other good arguments for considering the synthetics. They are now the equivalent of a Japanese Shinai with all that entails. Most international tournaments include a class for "nylons".
Steel blunts on the other hand, look great and are certainly historically "correct", but can often be harder to control well compared to a similar sharp blade intended for unarmoured fencing, due to the thicker edge. Comparing the same sword in blunt and sharp versions often shows that they are completely different swords.
A blunt "thrust oriented" sword feels more like a "cutting oriented" sharp. So, keeping that in mind you can certainly get a very good sword that can be used both for technique training and sparring. Flex can be good in blunt swords as well, but not all blunts are designed so. As always it is best to try the sword before deciding on what to invest in.
Finally, the historical fechtschule solution; the "Federschwert" blunts.
These are perhaps less esthetically pleasing for those of us longing for longswords that have a more brutal and "historical" appearance, but they go back as far as the mid 15th century at least, and are shown in the "Peter von Danzig"-manuscript of 1452 (as can be seen at the top of the page), the Talhoffer Manuscript of 1467 and numerous others. This is what many of our predecessors used while training in the traditions we study. That in itself is a strong argument for anyone to seriously consider practicing with a federschwert, at least in part of their training.
The characteristics of a good federschwert include a very lively and agile point control and it feels much like a sharp sword designed for blossfechten, but due to the design has a little less punch, since much mass has been moved closer to the cross. This design causes the often spoken of centre of percussion (c.o.p.) to be moved to a theoretical point beyond the actual point of the sword. You simply cannot strike as hard with a federschwert as with a "normal" sword. It should be noted that some federschwert also have flex in the wrong part of the blade. Preferably, the blade should flex in the last third or so, but several makers have stretched this flex too close to the cross, causing wobbling in the blade. Also, some federschwert have problems with vibrations in the hilt upon impact.
So, what is the best type of sword for sparring then?
Well, that depends on what you want to do. The Synthetics work reasonably well, but are often lighter and thus quicker. They tend to bounce and slide a bit more than steel in a bind and these two characteristics often lead to faster fencing with a stronger focus on striking and less on thrusting. Still, with discipline this can be countered and most techniques for working from a bind can be done with a good nylon waster. Your reflexes will also become quicker, making you better prepared for steel. Also, you can strike and thrust quite hard, even with fairly little, but proper, protection.
Steel blunts give you a better understanding for the techniques of the manuscripts we study, but some are unnecessarily slow and hard hitting. Also, since we do not want to injure each other permanently, we often hold back our attacks a little extra when the swords are a little too difficult to control well. Then again, you eventually become accustomed to the characteristics of these swords as well and with consistent training you will learn to control it, since it is basically a matter of strength and technique.
Furthermore, it should be noted that some blunt swords have blades specifically designed for sparring and are therefore closer to the handling characterics of sharp blades intended for unarmoured fencing. I will expand on this in the reviews of swords of this specific type.
Still, many do not behave as they would have done if they were sharpened. So the "historical" looks deceive you in a way. But, if looks is important to you, then this is for you. I would recommend a thrust oriented sword with a narrower blade though.
Make sure you do not buy a sword specifically intended for reenactment fencing... They are designed for completely different uses and needs.
If you are completely focused on training with "realistic" sharp sword characteristics, then a good federschwert is in my opinion your best option. It will behave very well and allow you to strike and thrust quite hard as long as your opponent has proper protection. And with less protection, they are quite easy to control, which naturally lowers the risk for injury. With that said, a really good steel blunt is of course amazing to handle, but is hard to find below 400€ and the biggest reason to invest in one is emotional rather than practical, although the emotional value is not to be underestimated... A good synthetic waster also has many advantages with regards to safety and pricing, even if they generally lack somewhat in the handling.
One important issue to keep in mind when investing in a sword, is the fact that some swords are incompatible with each other. This involves both handling characteristics, as well as tempering and hardening of the blade and cross. So you have to adapt your choice to work with that of your partner's or to what type or brand of sword is the most common in your club. Or buy a pair. For instance, a highly flexible Knightshop Synthetic Waster doesn't work well with a much more rigid Synthetic Waster from Purpleheart. Likewise, a flexible federschwert from Hanwei doesn't go well with a less flexible Ensifer, especially the heavy version. And mixing proper steel blunts with feders is often problematic to say the least. In the reviews I will explain what swords, in my opinion, are compatible and work best with each other.
Finally, one can't disregard the importance of proper protection when sparring with any of these weapons. More protection will allow you to fence harder with steel, but even then a certain amount of control is vital. On the other hand, the Synthetics allow for quite little protection, as the Swordfish Full Contact Nylon Tournament of 2010 showed and this is not to be underestimated in unarmoured fencing, where warm fencing jackets cause a lot of heat. Much work is currently being done on protective gear and within a not too distant future HEMA/WMA will have good protective gear, specifically designed for our needs. I will return to this topic in another review series.
A review is always subjective since it basically consists of the reviewer's impressions, which in turn are based on the reviewer's knowledge, skills and experience. However, in this review series I will try to respect and reflect the sword smiths' intentions and aspirations when designing these swords. It would be presumptuous to ignore what these swords have been designed for and what concerns the swordsmiths had in mind when designing them.
In this series of reviews I will first be reviewing nylon/plastic wasters and second steel federschwert. After that I will add regular blunt sparring swords.
Reviews of steel swords
Reviews of synthetic swords
Blunt steel longswords