Sword fighting movies have a long, proud tradition in Hollywood. Even back before the introduction of colour films, movie-goers were regularly treated to great Pirate films, medieval adventures or historical epics. For the most part however, nobody was interested in the swords themselves. Only recently has the hobby of collecting prop and replica film memorabilia become a mainstream phenomenon, perhaps due to the explosive growth in home entertainment, and the ability of viewers to “own” a movie.
Today, there is a massive range of replica and prop weapons available for almost every film that features a fight scene, but the quality of these replicas varies substantially, and it’s important to understand what, exactly, you are paying for.
Perhaps the biggest difference between cheaper and more expensive swords is the type of steel used to make up the blade. The cheapest replica weapons will use some type of Stainless Steel, which is steel mixed with chromium to prevent rust, and is only ever designed for display. The main grades used for replica weapons are 420, which is the cheaper type commonly used for cutlery, and 440, which is more expensive and is used in tools such as surgical knives and razor blades. Most decent reproduction weapons will use the 440 grade, which can be sharpened, particularly 440C, which has enough carbon in its mix to make a sword blade strong and flexible.
While Stainless Steel has the advantage of resisting corrosion, and polishing easily, it lacks sufficient carbon to be heat-treated to hold a proper edge, and still retain enough flexibility. Carbon-steel blades are the “real thing” and are used in high quality replica weapons, swords used for re-enactments, and traditionally made real swords intended for martial arts training. Carbon-steel easily corrodes however, and so must be kept oiled. Traditionally, the carbon was mixed into the steel by repeatedly folding the steel, as with Japanese and Damascus forged blades, however today the carbon is almost always properly mixed as standard, so folding is only done for the aesthetic properties it produces.
Some carbon-steel swords will quote the hardness of the blade. A value of 20-30 RC is typical of “Mild Steel” and not sufficient for practical use. 30-40 RC is good enough for a cheaper sword intended for re-enactments, as the sword will dent, but not chip. 40-50 RC is a good value for most European-style swords, and the spines of Japanese and other differentially treated swords, while a value of 60RC is ideal for the cutting edge of such swords.
Finally, pay attention to the swords tang. This is the part of the blade that sits inside the handle. A full tang that runs the length of the handle is required for any sword that is intended for use. Many higher-quality display swords will use a push-tang, that runs perhaps half the length of the handle, and will stand up to light use, e.g. non-contact training. Finally, a rat-tail tang is made by welding the blade to a metal bar inside the handle, and is definitely only for display.