Few HEMA-related products have caused as much debate as the Dave Rawlings/Knightshop range of Synthetic Swords. This comes quite natural as they were developed in close collaboration with the HEMA community, and the way we practice differ quite a lot inbetween clubs. So how has the Red Dragon Armoury succeeded in satisfying all our different expectations?
The answer is complicated and to be perfectly honest, I find the Knightshop line of synthetic swords a bit tricky to review, which is the reason why the review was delayed quite a bit. Although I have had concerns for some of the characteristics of the blades and share other peoples' concern regarding "whippiness" and a tendency to leave somewhat nastier bruises, I also think it is partly a matter of using the right tool for the job. Furthermore, I am deeply impressed by the manufacturer's ambition to improve on the blades to make them suit the HEMA fencers' needs while maintaining a sustainable production method that works with mass production.
With that said, the Knightshop synthetic longswords have both advantages and disadvantages.
The blades are quite safe in thrusting. At the same time, a bit too large flexibility still makes working from the bind rather tricky and since this is essential in the fencing most of us study, it is a problem. However, it becomes less pronounced with each "generation" of these swords, as the maker continuously seeks to improve on these swords in close collaboration with the HEMA community.
The somewhat thin edges, combined with the length and the described "whippiness" tend to leave nastier bruises than other synthetic longswords, if you use little protection. If you spar in a t-shirt, like I often do, then you can count on large bruises with neat lines criss-crossing assorted parts of your body. Personally, I don't mind much as long as they don't leave fractures or torn flesh. The advantage of the thinner edges is that the bind is more similar to that of steel, which of course is a good thing.
The durability also used to have a bit left to desire, but this requires a little background history: As these are cast, as opposed to most other synthetic swords which are milled and cut into shape, the manufacturing process used to involve three points where the mass was injected during the casting process. Unfortunately, the forward one left a weak point where some of the old blades tended to break. Knightshop has since then removed this injection point which should remedy this problem on all succeeding swords. Also, not all of the old blades show this problem. Furthermore, with the Pro-Line Extreme, the blades are said to be 20 times tougher than the preceding versions, making them virtually indestructible.
The design of the cross, grip and pommel is really good in my opinion, with the pommel being nice and smooth in the rear hand and the cross having real nice balls at the ends to prevent from piercing skin. There is also a "long pommel" available, although not in steel, which adds a couple of inches to the grip. A really cool solution for those wishing for longer grips. And for those who prefer a wheel pommel, that is available as well.
The optional steel pommels and crosses are wonderful and make the swords look considerably more serious and professional.
The fitting has left a bit to desire, but it has been much improved upon with the last changes. Earlier the crosses tended to be loose, but with some included rubber washers, rubber bands or just some simple plastic tape this can be easily fixed in a minute or so. The only disadvantage is the price for a fully "pimped" sword with "Rawlings Pro-Line Fittings" in steel, which puts the price perhaps a bit too close to quite good steel "federschwert". Still these two types of swords are quite different and are both well suited for certain circumstances and types of exercises.
The handling characteristics is of course one of the most important aspects of all. As described earlier, the flexibility causes some problems with the bind, both with the blades bouncing away from the bind, whiplash-strikes where the blade extends through the bind and problems with working from the bind with various "Winden"/leverage-techniques. It is less apparent with the Pro-Line Extreme blades, but still noticeable. Point control on the other hand is rather good, depending a bit on the actions involved, and the weight of the steel pommel and cross gives you a really nice feel in the hands. With these, the weight of the sword is about 1465g, which makes it well within the range of proper weights for the type of sword it simulates, although it will leave the centre of balance pretty much at the cross.
A special mentioning also needs to be made regarding the clever interchangeability of parts. All parts can be disassembled both for replacement, but also to create a different type of weapon. For instance the blade from the arming sword can be used with a basket hilt guard & pommel and used for sabre fencing. The basket hilt is specifically designed for use with larger gloves like the common Lacrosse gloves. There are also more such options being planned.
What does all this mean then? Well, as with many other wasters, the characteristics of the blade introduces "artifacts" into the fencing. In this case, the weight, balance, tapering and flexibility "encourages" continuous striking instead of working from the bind, which kind of nullifies the intended thrusting safety feature of good flexibility, since the thrusts will be little used in competetive sparring. As such this sword works well both for beginners' and intermediate practice, which tend to be less aggressive, for specific training of reflexes in quick sparring with a focus on striking and parrying, or for specific thrusting practice and finally for sparring with less protection.
A final note. Although this might not be the very best synthetic longsword available, it is still quite good and out of the mid-price range, mass produced options it is clearly the best. The clever interchangeability of the parts also make them into a kind of Swiss Army knife for HEMA clubs or practitioners with a tight budget. Furthermore, the ambition and dedication of the maker, both in designing various sparring weapons AND a coming line of protection, give me enough reason to ask the readers to show support for this dedicated HEMA manufacturer. The great work done thus far offers good hope for the future and that should be supported by us all. I sincerely believe it will help HEMA grow as a modern form of martial sports.
Weight: 0,87-1,47kg / 1.9-3.2lbs
Blade length: 96,5cm / 38in
Grip length (with pommel): 26cm / 10.2in
Total length: 124cm / 48.8in
Price: ca £47-90