A Critical Review and Comparrison of the Hanwei Tinker Pearce and Castille Armory Arming Swords
If you’ve read my post about choosing The Right Tool for the Job, then you already know that we only recently transitioned from using embarrassingly ad hoc arming swords made from hacked down Zen Warrior Armories rapier blades to proper medieval arming swords. While that may, in fact, be the only good use for ZWA steel, the resulting weapons were no better suited for exploring I.33 sword and buckler than a modern epee would be for practicing 16th-century rapier. And with only one arming sword on hand (a Hanwei Practical model I wouldn’t recommend), it was time to outfit the academy with better gear.
I’d like to be perfectly clear about my level expertise on the subject of period arming swords. Simply put, I’m not an expert on this subject. As a serious hobbyist, I’ve had the pleasure of handling several very nice arming sword trainers crafted by Hanwei, Darkwood Armory, Albion Arms, and several others. In other words, I had a pretty good idea what to look for when circumstances allowed me to provide The Edge of the World with a set of appropriate training swords that fit our limited budget.
Why These Swords?
As the focus here at The Edge of the World has steadily shifted towards I.33, I decided it was time to outfit the academy with a matched pair of arming swords. This coincided with an opportunity to sell off some recording equipment, and I suddenly had $500 to blow on swords. At about $230 a piece, the Hanwei Tinker Pearce Blunted Single Hand Sword—widely accepted by the mighty internets as the industry-standard starter arming sword for I.33—was an obvious choice. A quick online shopping trip to Kult of Athena later, and I was all set.
I just happened to have another piece of recording gear I wanted to get rid of, and I was able to strike a deal that made it easy for me to snag one of Castille Armory’s new I.33 Arming Swords the same week I ordered the Hanwei models. Actually, I’d been pining over one of these swords since late January. You see, there’d been rumors for some time that Castille was going to produce an economy I.33 arming sword. I happened to run into Sam Kovic, owner of Castille Armory, back in January, and when I asked him about it. As it turned out, Sam had recently purchased a genuine late 13th-century arming sword to base his production models on. Having previously worked with Sam to develop a custom German basket-hilt saber, this dedication to authenticity didn’t surprise me, but the fact that the production version was almost ready for release certainly did. I simply had to get my hands on one!
Before I go too deep into details, let me start by saying that these are both quality products that provide an excellent value for the money. Regardless of any criticism I have to offer, I’m experiencing exactly zero buyer’s remorse over my purchases, and while I clearly prefer the Castille model (for reasons that will become abundantly clear), I’m extremely pleased with both trainers. That said, check out the specs. By the way, for expediency’ sake, I’ll be referring to the Hanwei Tinker Pearce Blunted Single Hand Sword as simply the Tinker model from here on out.
|Specs and Dimensions|
|Price:||$227.95 USD||$325 USD|
|Total Weight:||1120g (2.47 lbs.)||1100g (2.43 lbs.)|
|Blade Material:||5160 Carbon Steel||5160 Carbon Steel|
|Blade Hardness:||50–53 Rockwell||49 Rockwell|
|Blade Length:||800mm (31.625″)||800mm (31.625″)|
|Width at Tang:||55mm (2.17″)||45mm (1.75″)|
|Point of Balance:||114mm (4.5″)||95mm (3.75″)|
|Tip Profile:||Flat/Rounded||Spatulated (10mm)|
|Grip Length:||108mm (4.25″)||114mm (4.5″)|
*Approximate average measurement.
Handling and Construction
Let’s cut right to the chase. Both the Tinker and the Castille models function well enough to provide the kind of blade contact, mass, and tactile feedback a student if I.33 needs to avoid making serious blunders. Given the variation in weight and balance found in extant 13th- and 14th-century arming swords, any further value ascribed to these characteristics is a matter of personal taste. That said, there are some clear differences.
In the following series of images, the Tinker model is displayed first, save for the section about the pommel, where the image order is swapped to follow the text, and the section on the tip, where only the Castille model is represented
The Tinker model’s blade is fairly broad at the tang, and a single wide fuller running halfway down the blade helps to keep the overall weight of the weapon under control. This allows the blade to maintain a steep cutting angle characteristic to swords of its type, which forms part of the hand protection, as incoming swords are naturally turned aside if they slide down near the wielder’s guard. Nonetheless, the point of balance extends 4.5″ from the guard, which allows it to cut easily, but which also limits fine point control a bit.
By contrast, Castille’s arming sword is a precision tool designed for added mobility, without minimizing its effectiveness as a cutting weapon. I have a confession to make, which is that I’m actually not a huge fan of Castille’s rapier blades (though manySCA and WMA fencers love them). To my taste, they feel a bit too insubstantial, and even their Cut and Thrust rapiers are on the lighter end of my comfort zone. I was a bit apprehensive when pictures of the first production models appeared online. You can imagine how delighted I was the first time I picked up my Castille arming sword and all my fears were allayed.
The tang width of the Castille model may be a full 10mm narrower than the Tinker, but the absence of a fuller and a slightly thicker diamond cross section out much of the mass back in the blade. In fact, the Castille sword weighs only 20g less than the Tinker, so the overall weight is comparable. Where you really feel the difference is in the point of balance, which is a full 19mm closer to the hand. While this certainly doesn’t cripple the Castille’s rotational axis (it cuts smoothly), it makes the point incredibly agile.
The flex characteristic of both of these arming swords is considerably different. When I ordered the Tinker swords, I asked Kult of Athena to send me the ones they had with the greatest amount of flex. I did this because flex tends to vary greatly on Hanwei-produced swords, and these would need to meet the minimum flex of 0.5″ of flex with a 6 oz weight suspended 1″ from the tip if I intended to use them in the context of the SCA.
I’m happy to say that Kult of Athena obliged me, yet there’s a clear difference between both Tinker blades I received. In both cases, the flex appears to be distributed across the entire blade, putting the apex of the bow close to the center. By contrast, the Castille has a slightly friendlier flex to it (a fair bit over the necessary flex for C&T but not quite what you’d want for rapier… If you wanted to use an arming sword for rapier anyway, ya weirdo). More importantly, the flex is all in the final third of the blade, so it doesn’t adversely affect its performance in the bind.
Of course you can’t discuss the handling of a weapon without considering the handle itself, and the handles of these two swords couldn’t be more different. To give them credit—and I admit there’s some conjecture here—Hanwei tried to match the aesthetic and construction Tinker Pearce specified in his original design. The handle is a through-core design, wrapped with cord and covered with a thin layer of leather. I’m not personally aware of this arrangement on period weapons (I’ve seen plenty where there’s a leather layer wrapped in cord or wire, but never the other way around).
That said, I’m sure Tinker Pearce has access to better resources than mine, and I don’t object to the actual configuration. What I object to is the rather shoddy construction of the handle itself. After only a few training sessions, the handles of both Tinker models began to peel and needed to be glued back together. Castille went with a simpler carved wood handle that tapers toward the pommel. It’s slightly greater length (0.25″ longer, to be exact) makes it a better fit in my hand too, but my hands are huge, so I’m a bit biased there.
When it comes to looks, the Tinker’s Style 6 guard takes the cake. The nice crisp lines and the gentle sweeping contour give the weapon a refined yet elegantly simple look. The mirror polish is a fine touch too, but perhaps overkill for a weapon destined to receive countless scuffs and scrapes. Indeed, the finish of both of my Tinker models betray the overall durability of this guard, and both models are already showing some wear. I’m not concerned about the guard falling apart any time soon, but it might have been more prudent to invest in better construction than finer aesthetics. Clearly Castille felt that way, because the contrast between the two guards couldn’t be starker. The relatively plain Style 1 flat cross of the Castille model is made from the same tempered 5160 high-carbon steel as the blade itself. While the brushed finish isn’t fancy, this guard is virtually bulletproof.
Moving back to the blade, let’s take a look at the tips of these swords. The Tinker model features a fairly standard rounded tip profile, whereas the Castille model’s tip swells out to a 10mm spatulated end. For anyone interested in fencing without a rubber blunt, the Castille sword is significantly more comfortable and safer. While this doesn’t make the use of a rubber blunt and more difficult, it may add extra bulk you don’t want to the end of your sword if you do. That said, although the Tinker model comes to a flat point, it’s wide enough at the tip that a standard blunt probably won’t fit.
The difference at the other end of the sword is just as great, as we take a look at the way the pommels are constructed. Both sport disc-shaped pommels, but they attach in slightly different ways. Castille chose a protruding hex pin which provides a broad base of pressure to sandwich the disc in place against a leather washer buffering the handle. While this does provide an ample measure of stability and an easy way to tighten the mechanism, it does detract slightly from the overall aesthetic of the Castille model.
The Tinker model has a slightly slimmer disc pommel, yet the end of the tang (just before the threading) rests just inside, so even if the pommel comes lose, the disc won’t spin and further loosen the attachment. The attachment itself is made via an inset hex nut, which gives the sword a more-peened look. Personally, I prefer the Castille option, if for no other reason than that I don’t need to look for an appropriately sized allen wrench if I need to tighten my pommel.
In a way, comparing these two swords is a bit unfair, in that they don’t claim to represent the same type of weapon. Tinker Pearce based his Single Hand Sword on a Type XII model, whereas Castille modeled theirs on a Type XV. So, in addition to sharing my thoughts about the performance of these two training swords, I thought it might be fun to see how well they held up compared to the type of sword they claim to be. Here’s how the two swords break down.
Hanwei Tinker Pearce Blunted Single Hand Sword
|Fuller:||1/2 blade||1/2 blade||Yes|
|Pommel:||Type J||Type I*||Okay|
|Guard:||Style 6||Style 3*||Okay|
*Most common characteristic; others acceptable.
Castille I.33 Arming Sword
|Pommel:||Type K||Type G–K*||Yes|
|Guard:||Style 1||Style 8*||Okay|
*Most common characteristic; others acceptable.
To be perfectly clear, I’m nowhere near as well versed with Oakeshott’s typologies as I’d like to be. I’ve read some of Oakeshott’s seminal work on the subject of medieval sword classifications, but I’m by no means an expert. For the purpose of this article, I used a secondary resource available at MyArmoury.com, which distills Oakeshott’s research down into an easily scannable and accessible format. While I enjoy this resource, I cannot claim the authority necessary to vouch for its accuracy.
There are many conclusions I could come to when measuring these swords against one another, even if a direct comparison isn’t exactly fair. In nearly every respect save for some aspect of their aesthetics, the Castille sword is the superior of the two. You might be tempted to assume that’s just what you get for spending an extra $100 (about one third more) on a training sword, but I think there’s more to it than that. Beneath either model, there’s a slightly different philosophy. What they have in common is that both makers have endeavored to provide the best sword they can on a highly restrained budget. They also represent known typologies to satisfy the needs of an end user who is at least somewhat concerned about historical authenticity.
Where the makers differ in philosophy is the value they place on aesthetics versus functionality. With its broad fuller, contoured guard, and recessed pommel fastener, the Tinker model is beautiful. It even comes with an elegantly simple scabbard, allowing reenactors and living historians to display their sword in an appropriate fashion. Conversely, while the Castille model is by no means unattractive, the effort that could have gone into making it even more visually impressive clearly went into making it the best representation of a Type XV arming sword possible.
For my money, I think it’s worth saving the extra cash and buying the Castille, even if the Tinker model is a perfectly acceptable training sword in most respects. Not only is it a better-constructed sword, but you also get Castille’s impressive warranty and Sam Kovic’s dedication to his customers backing up your purchase, and that’s worth way more than an extra hundred bucks.