Spirit of the 7th Sea: Equestrianism with Jaym Gates

Jaym Gates with horse, Romeo.
Rescued at 6 months old, Romeo was too angry to be handled safely. He now comes to a whistle and ‘helps’ with fence work.

Equestrianism is a major feature in many 7th Sea games—from the dreaded hussar cavalry to the nomadic Khazari horse tribes. This month, we interviewed editor, writer, and lifelong equestrian enthusiast Jaym Gates about horses in 7th Sea.

Jaym had wonderful insights to share about horses throughout history, realistic horseback travel, and the powerful bond between horses and humans that has “shaped humanity in a way no other creature can claim.”

Q: Thanks for taking the time to share your equestrian expertise with us, Jaym! Can you tell me about your own history with horses? What drew you to equestrianism and how long have you been riding?

Jaym: Man, there’s no real ‘entry’ point for me. There was never a point where horses weren’t part of my life. My family has been involved with horses for centuries, literally—my ancestors were knights and jousting fanatics in England in the Medieval era. The first picture of me on horseback was when I was a few weeks old and my mom was holding me. I understand horses more than humans.

Q: Humans have domesticated horses to support our work in a variety of ways, from racing and long-distance riding to plowing and war horses. Can you talk about the different types of horses bred for different types of work and what those horses look like?

Jaym: So, first off is breaking out the main categories: you’ve got donkeys, mules, ponies, and horses, in order of hardiness. Donkeys aren’t pretty, and most are small (‘mammoth donkeys’ are the exception, but they’re still smaller than a lot of horses), but they don’t need much food, they’re incredibly smart, and they can do a hell of a lot. Mules are the next rung up. They can be lovely animals, but tend not to be very fast, and it requires a lot of intelligence from the human to make them respect you, but mules are smart, strong, and powerful.

Then you have ponies, which are not just a height classification, but a type. Ponies are built in a more sturdy shape, with shorter legs, heavier bodies, and more durability. They take less food, can work longer, and survive more. They jump extremely well for their size, are very sure-footed, and are typically highly intelligent. The horses I grew up with were half Welsh Pony, half Arab mares, and the matriarch of our little herd could open any gate or rope that a human could, and taught her daughter the same.

Ponies cover a pretty broad range though, from the stumpy little Shetland to the massive Cobs—which are basically draft ponies—to the slim little riding ponies that are as expensive as any horse.

Piebald Cob stallion grazing in the English Midlands. Via Wikimedia.
Piebald Cob stallion grazing in the English Midlands. Via Wikimedia.

Horses can be divided into roughly three categories: riding horses, carriage/cart horses, and draft horses. Draft horses are your big Budweiser Clydesdales, bred to help break inhospitable land to human use, haul huge loads of materials, and yet be gentle enough to take care of the kids. Draft horses are still used in a lot of Europe and the Americas for farm and logging work, and can often access places closed to vehicles.

Riding horses are the ones most of us are familiar with, and they cover hundreds of breeds. Some of the best-known are the Greyhound-like Thoroughbred, and the small, fiery Arabian. Other popular breeds include the Andalusian, which is a Spanish breed used for dressage and cattlework, and Quarter Horses/Paints/Appaloosas, which are also cattle horses.

When you combine the bloodlines of a riding horse and a draft horse, you get the intermediate carriage-type horse, which is usually called a Warmblood (riding horses are ‘hot’, drafts are ‘cold). They tend to be a little stockier than a riding horse, but much lighter than draft horses. They were made to be strong, but also often to be attractive enough to pull an expensive coach, so some of them are quite flashy. This is also the type that is often used in equestrian sports. These range from Hollywood’s favorite black Friesian to the athletic Oldenburgs and Trakehners. Most Warmbloods that are bred as independent breeds come from Europe, many of them from the areas around Germany and England, which had strong breeding programs for cavalry horses.

Publicity shot for
Publicity shot for “The Son of the Sheik,” 1926 film, illustrating Jadaan, a famous Arabian stallion. Via Wikimedia.

Q: The domestication of horses dates back long before the timeline of 7th Sea, which is set around the late 17th century. When (roughly) did humans first begin domesticating and riding horses? Are there any major landmarks in the history of equestrianism, like the invention of new techniques or technologies, that might enter into a 7th Sea game?

Jaym: Domestication of horses was waaay back before the Assyrians and Egyptians, before we really have good records. Horses were similar to cattle for a long time in that they were food that could be domesticated and moved. At some point, someone figured out they could move a whole lot more and started riding them.

Around the 17th century, you started seeing some real interest in getting the most out of a horse. The Spanish in particular were leading the way in taking the horse’s ability as a weapon and codifying it into an art form called ‘dressage’. Middle Eastern and Moorish bloodlines were moving north, and the Thoroughbred began its journey around this time, based on Arabian blood. So you could absolutely have noblemen who’re bringing expensive trainers in to teach them this new ‘dressage’ sport, or schemes around priceless breeding stock being imported from foreign lands. Look up the Godolphin Arabian if you want a good idea of some of the intrigue there!

Additionally, wealthy Englishwomen in particular were beginning to develop a fascination with the Middle Eastern horse, and many of them made incredible trips into the Middle East to find and bring back the amazing horses there. For a time when women were barely allowed outside, some of these adventures were pretty incredible. Look up Lady Anne Blunt if you want a good idea of the things they were getting up to.

Lady Anne Blunt, in Bedouin dress, and her favorite riding mare, Kasida, c. 1900.
Lady Anne Blunt, in Bedouin dress, and her favorite riding mare, Kasida, c. 1900.

Q: In a 7th Sea game you might encounter the Khazari, a large nomadic horse tribe from the northermost part of Ussura. As you can see in the maps below, the nation of Ussura is already pretty far north. Would you see many differences between warm and cold climate horses? How about differences in body shape or stature between more formally domesticated riding horses and horses ridden by nomadic tribes?

Jaym: One of the really fun facts of history is that the Mongolians conquered a vast amount of the known world on tiny horses that were little more than scrubby ponies. They certainly wouldn’t win any beauty awards—short-legged, pot-bellied, hammer-headed, scraggy-maned—but these little guys were exceptionally tough and able to survive on very little food.

Mongolian archer on horseback, c 1895.
Mongolian archer on horseback, c 1895.

However, you get a little farther north (the area that would correspond to the Khazari), and you start getting into an ecological niche that produced a really fascinating group of unique horses, known as “The Heavenly Horse” in China and Russia. The Akhal Teke is the best known of these, but the horses of the Eurasian steppes were pretty much alike—tall, thin, long-legged, with sparse manes and thin coats, roman noses, and an almost miraculous ability to survive and thrive on next to nothing, while having incredible endurance, intelligence, and loyalty. Additionally, their coats have a unique property that gives them a metallic sheen.

Akhal Teke stallion, with its signature sheen.
Akhal Teke stallion, with its signature metallic sheen.

Similar to the Bedouin Arabians (and related to them), these horses were raised in such close proximity to humans that they were more giant dogs than horses. Stories abounded of their care of wounded riders, their ability to find their way home from great distances, and their prowess in war. The stallions were tethered near tents and blanketed in heavy felt blankets, while the mares and young horses foraged. Before war, the horses were put on sparse diets to prepare them for the minimal food and water of a long-distance raid. During the journey, they were fed solely on cakes of mutton fat, butter, and dried fruit.

Have you seen the movie Hidalgo? The closest real race to that is a 2600 mile endurance race through the steppes. Akhal-Tekes are the only horses who run it.

Steppe tribes needed their horses to be almost uncannily smart, loyal, and capable, and stories abound of the wonder Europeans felt when they met the Eastern breeds. Most European breeds owe their background to the Arabian and Barb horse, but those same bloodlines went north and east and became the horses that Chinese emperors would pay astronomical sums for.

Image of modern Chinese cavalry, who carry swords on horseback in addition to guns.
Image of modern Chinese cavalry, who carry swords on horseback in addition to guns.

Q: In 7th Sea, your character might choose a background that gives them special abilities when they’re using equestrian skills. One example of this is a cavalry background, which gives you a Hero Point when you apply your riding skills to an uncommon situation. There’s also a special Vodacce background, Ride, that lets you engage in high-speed carriage chases and ride through forests at a gallop.

What would happen if someone without any equestrian knowledge just tried to hop on a horse and gallop away? What should a person be aware of before even trying to mount a horse?

Jaym: To be fair, it’s easy enough to learn to ride very quickly…if you have a very well-mannered, careful horse. There’s a reason so many trail-riding and horseback adventure groups exist. But if you want to do anything more intense, it’s going to be a challenge.

First off, the muscles used. There’s nothing else that really hits the same muscles. Horses are often used as therapy for people who can’t walk because it stimulates muscles deep in your core and back. It requires strength in your joints, hands, wrists, elbows, and arms.

Secondly, balance. Horses ‘roll’ a little when they walk, so even the walk takes a few minutes to master. The trot, the animal’s favorite gait, is hell on earth if you don’t know how to ride it (think of trying to ride two pogo sticks). The canter and gallop are easier, but what may not look very fast on the ground feels awfully fast when you’re on 1000+ pounds of muscle.

It takes courage to approach an unknown animal and open a dialog, and a willingness to learn a new language.

Thirdly, and most importantly, mental. Horses are huge, intelligent, and they have their own way of processing the world. You can beat most of them into submission, but many of them will eventually snap, and some will kill you up front for trying that. It takes courage to approach an unknown animal and open a dialog, and a willingness to learn a new language.

Q: In fantasy movies I’m always struck by the presence of horses on a long journey. Some films address the needs of the horses, and others make it seem like horses can just ride on endlessly with no water, food, or breaks. If a Hero’s going to undertake a long journey on horseback, what special care should they be considering? What should they be bringing along for their horse and how can they make horse travel feel more realistic?

Jaym: As mentioned above, it depends. A normal horse is going to need time to graze, rest, and drink water. Neglecting any of those options leads to a horrible thing called ‘foundering’, which basically means their feet give out and they can’t walk, and to potentials for colic and other illnesses.

If you’re riding at a walk, a horse can go most of the day with just a break at night and a couple of breaks during the day for water and a snack—a handful of oats, a few minutes of grazing, whatever. This can be interspersed with trotting or short periods of galloping, but the faster and longer you go, the more breaks you need, and the more work is required at those breaks. A lathered horse can’t be taken immediately to water, they have to be cooled down (walked, usually) until their respiratory system recovers, and then they need lukewarm water until they are no longer sweating—and only a little water. Too much or too cold and you’ll kill the horse. It’s a fine balance…

However, it’s not unheard of for horses to do 30 miles in a day, with good care. The horse needs to be fit, and the breaks need to be thoughtful, but it’s possible. Exceptional horses can do quite a lot more. The Bedouin Arabians are a good example. A prime horse was put through a rigorous test: run 50 miles without rest, swim at least one river (if you could find one), and come back with enough of an appetite to not only eat a full bag of oats but to not get sick from eating. Tellingly, a horse like that literally could not be sold, blood feuds lasting generations were started, and wars were fought over the theft of such a horse. Fortunes were made from the foals of these horses, or from their prowess in war or on the race track. Their loss to old age or injury was cause for as much grief as the loss of a family member. They could be gifted, but only to the most worthy of people. So the chances of any but the highest-level character owning such a horse is unlikely.

A lathered horse can’t be taken immediately to water, they have to be cooled down (walked, usually) until their respiratory system recovers…

Q: Finally, as a person who hasn’t spent much time around horses, I’d like to know how much horses bond with their owners. Do horses tend to express loyalty to one person, or to a small group of people? What are some of the emotional aspects of horse ownership that might come into play in a 7th Sea game?

Jaym: It really depends on the horse. I’ve owned horses who loved everyone, whether you had a treat or not, and horses who bonded exclusively to one person. The typical horse will bond strongly to its herd, which includes the humans it sees most and the horses it lives with. Horses are extremely social animals, they need interaction, and humans work just fine for that.

I have two horses I’ve raised from the time they were a few months old, and one horse rescued after his racing days were over. They all follow me like overgrown dogs, getting into everything and bickering with each other for attention. They call when they see me after I’ve been gone, and very clearly consider me a herd member. I have another one who, until recently, just didn’t like humans. He had no reason to, they’d never been kind to him. Recently, he’s realized that he’s safe for life, and he’s blossomed. He’s not particularly bonded to a human, but he’s friendly with all of us. The racehorse and the younger ones, by contrast, are very particular about which humans may touch them.

The typical horse will bond strongly to its herd, which includes the humans it sees most and the horses it lives with.

Emotionally, it’s amazing, and awful, and ridiculously hard to describe. Think about it: this 1000+ pound animal, who can live up to (and sometimes more than) 40 years, an animal capable of amazing feats, but this creature regards you as part of its family. It trusts you to help keep it safe, it watches your back, it has a deep emotional bond with you, and it will remember you for years of separation. It’s like a weird cross between a kid, a dog, and a friend.

That sort of emotional bond takes a toll, though. When I was 15, I had to put down the horse who’d raised me from the time I was a baby. Seriously, there are pictures of me, just a few weeks old, being held on her back. She was my best friend, confidant, nanny, and trainer. She had no problem telling me what I was doing wrong and making my life hard, but she also would go to great lengths to ensure my safety. I still miss her, and I still remember every awful time I’ve lost a horse.

I also worked for a while with an equine therapy program. We had kids who had never walked before getting up on these massive animals, and even a normally skittish, belligerent horse would steady down and walk so delicately, so carefully, paying attention to every shift and uncertainty. We had teenagers who gained the confidence to walk simply from a few rides, non-verbal kids who couldn’t stop talking to the horses, and kids who experienced freedom and power for the first time in their lives. We had one kid from inner-city Baltimore who’d had pretty much the worst hand life could give him. He didn’t see the point of horses, and he threw the brush into the pony’s face. A few minutes and one (admittedly slightly overwrought) description from me of what the horse thought of that, and he had his arms around that pony’s neck, his face buried in its mane, and the pony loved on him in return. Horses have a sixth sense for the scared, wounded, and weak.

Think about it: this 1000+ pound animal, who can live up to (and sometimes more than) 40 years, an animal capable of amazing feats, but this creature regards you as part of its family.

And sure, you can just look at it as a beast of burden, but why would you? You’re missing out on a relationship that has shaped humanity in a way no other creature can claim. If you want to experience some wonderful storytelling from someone who knew and loved horses, check out the work of Will James, who wrote about cowponies and the people they knew.

Thanks again for your time, Jaym! If you have any social media links you’d like to add, please share them below. 🙂

Jaym: Thanks! You can find me on Twitter as @JaymGates, or via my (infrequently-updated) website, jaymgates.com.

Spirit of the 7th Sea: Interview with Samantha Swords

sam-at-dragongate-swords-arm-crossed-by-box-bag-promo-image
Samantha Swords

Welcome to spirit of the 7th Sea, an interview series with experts and enthusiasts who share a passion for early modern European history.

This month, we interviewed sword-fighter, performer, illustrator, and craftsperson Samantha Swords.

Originally from New Zealand, Samantha has traveled the world doing work in the film industry, as well as working with propmaking, armor construction, costume construction, large-scale sculpture, metalsmithing, and much, much more.

Samantha was kind enough to lend her time and expertise talking with us about historical sword fighting, pop culture myths, and favorite dueling maneuvers.


Hi Samantha! I’m thrilled to be able to talk with you about sword fighting. Thanks for lending your time and expertise!

Q: First, how did you get your start? What initially drew you to sword fighting and what attracted you to historical sword fighting over modern sport fencing?

Samantha: I have been passionate about medieval European swords since I was a child. I started training in historical fencing in 2008, but I did practice modern Olympic fencing for four years as a teenager. I don’t see much relationship between the two, as historically the art of defence was very practical and dangerous, and it’s much more interesting to me. Also the martial arts of medieval Europe are very beautiful, and the challenge of reviving them is unique and exciting!

Q: Like many people, my concept of historical sword fighting mostly comes from pop culture, and I know my knowledge is built on a lot of myths. What are the most common myths you’ve encountered?

Samantha: The first is a strange myth that medieval swords weren’t actually sharpened much, or were mostly bludgeoning tools.

We know that medieval and Renaissance swords were very sharp, partly from surviving museum examples, through forensic evidence of damage to deceased fighters, and via documentation from the period. Also, feders—the sword-like tools that historical fencing schools used to train safely—are strangely-shaped so that they can simulate the weight, balance and other characteristics of a fully-sharpened sword. Essentially, there’s no sense in carrying around a 3 foot long blade if one isn’t going to use it as a blade!

Another myth many people love to hold onto is the idea that ‘swords were extremely heavy’. They weren’t. The average weight of any actively-used sword throughout the Middle Ages was a mere 1-3 pounds. Most single-handed arming swords were around 1 pound in weight, even Viking swords! In the case of Viking swords, they were secondary weapons, mainly used for cutting at exposed areas, not used for smashing into wooden shields (that’s what other shields and axes were for..!)

The later weapon, the longsword, averaged around 2-3 pounds in weight. The rapier was heavier than most people think and was around the same weight as a longsword, but the since it was a single-handed tool the weight was distributed more close to the hilt, allowing freer movement of its long, narrow blade.

Larger two-handed swords gained popularity in war and for ceremonial use from the 16th-17th centuries, and their size varied depending on different, specialised functions. Swords used in dueling tended to be smaller than those employed to hew through large groups of enemies at a time (such as the famous montante, from the Iberian Peninsula). Two handed ‘schlachtschwert‘ (battle swords) were very large but still dynamic and well-balanced. Their great size made them well-suited for ceremonial use. Even ‘bearing’ swords, extremely large swords used only in parades to impress onlookers from great distance, were built to fighting-sword standards. Surviving examples of bearing swords are excellent examples of craftsmanship, and like battle swords, are only around 6-8 pounds. However a modern misunderstanding about the context of such weapons contribute to the myth of the oversized, overly-heavy medieval sword.

The good guide to debunking such myths is to remember that a tool is made to be useful, and in a fight, any excess weight will slow you down. Weapons and armour-makers intelligently designed their equipment to be as strong, lightweight and efficient as possible.

Q: Speaking of pop culture, let’s talk movie sword fights! I’ve always loved this fight scene from Princess Bride, between Inigo Montoya and the feared Dread Pirate Roberts. I’m ready to have my reality shattered. What do you see here that just wouldn’t fly in a real sword fight?

Samantha: I love this scene. It perfectly captures the energy and character of Inigo and The Man in Black. The fighters’ use of the environment, their gymnastic feats and clear, disciplined attacks, the wit and wordplay the two engage in, the references to historical fencing masters and their strategies—everything is great for on-screen entertainment.

As with any stage combat, the strikes that both actors make are often wide, and won’t connect if the other performer misses with their block. This style of attack is done for the safety of the performers and usually hidden through camera angles, but in a real fight if an opponent makes an attack that won’t actually connect then there is no need to move and defend against it! Knowing when to move or not involves a mastery of distance— knowing how far you and your opponent can reach when the swords are extended in a thrust or cut.

The Man in Black and Inigo are fighting with rapiers, but not using them as rapiers were historically used according to the many sources that we have. Despite referencing four fencing masters, what they are doing in the scene doesn’t actually reflect the movements they are commenting on. This is unsurprising as the wonderful sword choreographer Bob Anderson was not well-versed in historical fencing so wasn’t able to bring in the complex techniques referenced as he created the fight.

The style that the two are fencing with more resembles the use of small-swords, which require a closer range to cause damage. Smallswords are also lighter than rapiers, which allow for soft, quick, flexible attacks, gymnastic behaviour like leaping and hopping, and antics like tossing the sword from hand to hand, as The Man in Black does towards the end, mid-defence. With a true rapier fight he wouldn’t be able to do this as the opponent, Inigo, would push through the centre the moment the Man in Black switched hands. As someone who ‘has studied his Agrippa’, this would be a simple matter for Inigo. Instead, the two constantly are swiping at one another with their swords, making contact and then breaking apart again.

Unlike what is often seen in movies, good historical fencing was based around being able to control the other fighter’s blade, not constantly knock it aside back and forth (most often seen with larger weapons such as longswords). The teeth of two sharp swords bite into one another and create a strong connection between both opponents. They are then ‘bound’ and able to feel the force and movements of the other, and a good fighter take can advantage of this feedback as they press one another for an opening.

It’s very realistic at the end of the fight that Inigo becomes erratic with his defence. A masterful swordsman would seek to defend with conservative motions, whilst still threatening and making their opponent move wider and wider until there is an undefended opening that the swordsman can take advantage of—just as The Man in Black does with Inigo. This kind of masterful control of a fight takes precision and patience, which is why Inigo realises that The Man in Black has bettered him, and he surrenders.

A masterful swordsman would seek to defend with conservative motions, whilst still threatening and making their opponent move wider and wider until there is an undefended opening that the swordsman can take advantage of.

Overall the duel at the Cliffs of Insanity is strictly linear in its motions, much like a modern fencing bout. One way to take such advantage would be to step offline, changing the angulation of the attack—such as using the strategies of Thibault. The linear fencing in the fight reads well on film, however, and has a beautiful flow to it that in no way detracts from the rest of the movie.

Despite the criticisms mentioned above, I feel that the style of combat in the scene was entirely appropriate. Having the two characters fight in any other way would detract from the lighthearted atmosphere of the encounter. Ultimately this is what good fight design should do—fit with the characters and story and feel like a seamless part of the world they are in. By this standard, the scene is perfect!

Q: My final pop culture question, and I hope this one doesn’t make you cringe. I love the trope of a blade so sharp it can cut another sword clear in half! I’m guessing that one’s … not very realistic. What would it take to make that happen?

Samantha: Actually, this one isn’t so far fetched as other myths! It is possible for one sword to cut through another, but only if the sword that breaks is already weak; of poor quality. Steel is made up of crystals that form and weave together during forging, and once you fracture their structure (by heating or mistreating a blade) it is completely possible the sword can snap or yield to a forceful cut.

Two good steel swords that strike one another with a lot of power are going to be damaged, but if they are made well and flexible, their core should transfer the force along the length of the tang.

Blades cut when they are moving, and have thousands of microscopic teeth that bite into something, like a saw. Just pressing them hard against an object is not enough to cause a cut. There needs to be a sliding motion, just like with a saw cutting through wood.

When it comes to the trope of a sword slicing through armour, consider that armour is made to defend against swords and other weapons. That’s the purpose of its design. If swords were able to slice right through the layers then there would be absolutely no point to wearing a hot, heavy harness that takes a fair bit of time to put on. Armour worked, but like everything, it still had vulnerabilities. Many other tools were developed solely to damage a fighter in armour. If a sword were already able to do that then there would be no need for other weapons to exist like the war hammer, mace or flail.

If you were going to attack a well-armoured opponent with your sword, it would make sense to mainly thrust and only go for the gaps and weak places. Historically, fully-armoured knights fighting a sword-wielder would be targetted in areas like the armpits, the palms, the eye-sockets, inside the elbows, behind the knees, and other areas that armour wasn’t able to cover because it needed to still hinge and allow the fighter to move their body.

Although a sharp blade is dangerous and can cut easily, being able to make smooth, clean strikes that slice right through something requires a lot of practice. It takes very little pressure to cut through skin, but if you don’t follow through then an enemy may only be in pain, and able to strike you back! In historical swordsmanship, every cut should be an offensive blow. Even if it is a parry it should still be swung to still be a threat, and keep your opponent at bay.

Samantha Swords death strike. Photo by Bruno Gallant.
Photo by Bruno Gallant.

Q: While heroes get themselves into dire situations, sword fighting in 7th Sea often has a playful edge! In a real sword fight (or more casual swordplay), are there any maneuvers where you know someone is just messing with you? Like playful moves, or provoking moves?

Samantha: Definitely! You can use your distance to trick an opponent, and bait them into attacking an opening that might be just out of range. You can switch your weapon from one hand to another, to confuse them, especially if they are not used to fighting a left-hander (although good fencing masters of the time would teach to defend against just that!).

You could play with them by making contact with their blade with the tip of yours, but not enough for them to control you—moving the fastest part of your sword around theirs. This can be very frustrating to experience because your opponent refuses to commit to an action.

You can lean away from your opponent when they strike, not even moving your feet. This can be annoying if the other person has put a lot of force into the blow… Another option when duelling at close range is to perform disarms. Many people don’t expect it, and it can be an amusing way to end a fight!

Q: In 7th Sea, the continent of Théah is made up of ten nations, each with its own distinct customs and personality. Can you talk about regional differences in bladed weapons? Are these differences largely aesthetic or will you find major differences in the shape, weight, and function of bladed weapons across 17th century Europe.

Samantha: The 17th century saw dramatic changes in single handed swords, and how they were used. Following the Renaissance, several distinctive blade types developed in Europe. The iconic shape of the cruciform, double-edged medieval sword was largely replaced by blades that ranged in shape from wide and curved to straight and narrow. Civilian and military weapons were extremely diverse and developed both for fashion and for function.

As the blade styles evolved they were imitated universally, but decoration and other details varied depending on culture and region. Hand protection was added to many swords and classical-inspired styling, such as scalloped shapes and the chiselled likeness of animals were very fashionable features found on many swords. Italian and Spanish weapons tended to be elaborate and flamboyant, Germanic weapons were more simple and functional, and English and French swords fell somewhere in between.

Many sword types were effectively the same across Europe as their specialised parts would be made at certain workshops and manufacturing hubs, then shipped and assembled by local cutlers. Some of the reasons for this were to enable the best product quality and also practicality of transport. For example, sword blades packed tight and stored in a barrel are a lot easier to ship than a bundle of fully-finished swords.

Italian and Spanish weapons tended to be elaborate and flamboyant, Germanic weapons were more simple and functional, and English and French swords fell somewhere in between.

The lessening influence of the Church on nobility and increased trade with the East contributed to social acceptance of curved sabres, and also the increased skill of swordsmiths (combined with access to fine quality steel) allowed for the development of longer, finer weapons like the rapier and the smallsword.

As well as being a military weapon, the rapier became immensely popular during the 16th and 17th centuries due to its elegant appearance and lethal capabilities, and especially as it could be an ‘espada ropera’- a sword of the robes, or daily clothes. It could be worn anywhere, unlike the larger swords that were associated with the ‘work’ of war and considered provocative and inappropriate for civilian life. The rapier was discreet enough to still be worn for self defence and showed the wearer was both a swordsman and a gentleman. During the 17th century the preference changed in favour of the smallsword, and then by the end of the century, sadly the pistol replaced these as the duellist’s weapon of choice.

Other shorter bladed weapons were popular during this time too, such as the basket-hilted broadsword (with a wire cage that protected the user’s hand) and the messer, a sword-like knife worn by all classes of society. For the upper classes the rapier enjoyed the most use, and its extreme length (between 30-55 inches) was a great advantage in any duel. At the beginning of the 17th century rapier fencers would frequently use a left-handed dagger as well. This fell out of fashion in most areas, except in Italy and Spain where the weapon took on a highly-developed, specialised form.

The rapier was discreet enough to still be worn for self defence and showed the wearer was both a swordsman and a gentleman.

Some other blades were immensely successful in select regions, such as the stocky, powerful cinquedea of Italy, which was used extensively there and nowhere else. Another example is the katzbalger of the Landsknecht mercenaries, a short, brutal and effective weapon- an appropriate companion to the professional soldier.

In some cities the wearing of swords was restricted or banned outright, so other weapons were adopted, such as falchions or baselards. Like their well-utilised cousin the messer, these might pass as swords at a distance but are actually constructed as knives with single edges and a different hilt, allowing them to defy legal restrictions through sheer technicality.

At sea, shorter weapons were also favoured due to their heft and manoeuvrability in close quarters. Firearms were becoming more efficient in the 17th century but were still limited with their reloading capacity and overall reliability, so many seamen opted to always fall back on wielding an axe, or a trusty blade.

Q: I’ve heard people refer to the katana as a superior bladed weapon. Do you think there’s a historic sword that’s a cut above the rest, or does it really come down to the skill of the bladesmith and the intended purpose of the sword?

Samantha: Whilst the katana was produced by an extraordinary feat of engineering, it was still only suitable within the context that it was used—defeating other warriors in single combat. Different weapons develop for different purposes, and there are some exceptional weapons (especially from ancient Asian and Scandinavian cultures) so it is very difficult to decide on one ‘best sword of all’.

However, since the majority of medieval and Renaissance swords were designed to follow harmonic principles of geometry, the original objects are beautiful and extremely well-balanced, symmetrical tools. For me, this makes them superior to most other weapons. I’m also biased towards medieval swords!

Q: How customized is footwork when it comes to using different swords? For example, if you spent your life training with a rapier then picked up a longsword for the first time, would you really trip yourself up?

Samantha: For later styles such as rapier or smallsword, footwork is very specialised, because the fencing style is based largely on thrusting and takes advantage of the minute differences in blade angles.

A rapier fighter could employ their footwork to wield a longsword and may still fight well, but there are major differences on how best to use your body to work with either weapon. A longsword requires both sides of the body to move together more wholistically, and to adjust your body structure for the powerful momentum of longsword cuts. The fencer would need to learn to wrestle as well, since the optimal sparring distance for longsword is much closer than rapier—just outside of grappling range—and the martial arts of the longsword largely incorporate switching between the two.

Samantha Swords fencing in Michigan.
Samantha Swords fencing in Michigan.

Q: Can you talk about little details a player or GM might add to their 7th Sea games to make dueling scenes or sword fights feel more realistic? Something that would take the scene from “awesome but impossible” to “awesome and plausible?”

Samantha: I’ve thrown in some clues in my other answers, which I hope will help players build more realism into their game. The essence of creating believable combat in a role-play story is to understand the purpose of the fight, and the motivations of the people in it. Do they want to get away? Do they want vengeance? Are they impressing their peers, or surviving a brutal confrontation? Are they in or out of their comfort zone? How desperate are they? Are they tired? How far away is their backup?

I think of combat as falling into three different goals: for show (like a duel of honour or test of sportsmanship), for self defence (such as being ambushed and fighting to get away), or for survival (such as enduring a battle or a situation that you can’t just walk away from). Once you understand where a character falls into these important categories, you can then look at other smaller details and build them in.

The essence of creating believable combat in a role-play story is to understand the purpose of the fight, and the motivations of the people in it.

As well as understanding this breakdown of fighting goals, my best advice is to learn as much as you can about historical arms, armour and their limitations and advantages so you can exploit the details in your narrative. This will make it feel real and engaging to the other people involved in your story.

Q: Let’s talk scrappy fighting! In 7th Sea you’ll find trained nobles and naval officers with swords, but you’ll also find pirates. What are some of the notable differences you’d see in a fight between a trained swordswoman and a rough n’ tumble fighter? What bladed weapons might a wealthy person have access to that a pirate wouldn’t?

Samantha: Did I hear you say, “Let’s talk about pirates”…?! Yarrr…!

‘Hit and run’ was the essential signature of a pirate attack. Historically, pirates worked through intimidation, relying on their reputation and superior strength to demoralise their victims, and the expectation was immediate surrender lest the hapless ship suffer fatal consequences. The majority of ships targeted by pirates were trade vessels that had never seen battle, so in most cases the terrified crew would comply after the pirates made a show of force and demanded a surrender. Many seamen could not swim, so even just the threat of fire and exploding devices such as early grenades thrown onto an oily wooden ship could be enough for a ship’s crew to be conquered without a drop of blood being spilled. On land, pirates would also employ raid techniques, sometimes banding together with other pirate crews so that their numbers overwhelmed the small towns they stormed.

Although pirates were thought of by their contemporaries as wild, cruel individuals that killed without hesitation, a great many were former merchant seamen; young men in their 20s who had willingly—or not—joined a pirate crew. Some would have been thugs and criminals, but the greatest fighting strengths that pirates possessed were their willingness to engage in violence, the firepower of their ship, and the reputation that preceded them.

Individually I can only speculate on how a pirate might fight. Brawling was common amongst both working men and academics in the 17th century, but a pirate’s intimacy with everyday violence would give them more comfort during a fight than a person living within the law might feel.

An experienced swordsman would have certainly studied rapier, military sabre or sidesword as a duelling weapon, as well as other ‘gentlemanly’ weapons such as dagger, cape and open hand/wrestling techniques. They would have been influenced by a calculated and mathematical approach to the defensive arts that grew during the Renaissance and was popularised by the writings of masters such as Capo Ferro, Thibault and Fabris. With a better concept of physics and more conservative motions, the swordsman would have the upper hand in a civilised fight. However pirates worked outside the law, so ‘anything goes’ was probably the best approach to winning a one-on-one fight with such a person.

Reproduced illustration from Academy of the Sword by Girard Thibault (1628)
Reproduced illustration from Academy of the Sword by Girard Thibault (1628)

Public duels amongst 17th century swordsmen were often bloody affairs, though rarely lethal. Thus an experienced fencer could have won many duels, yet might struggle to keep their head during a scrap with a disreputable, ‘rough and tumble’ type. In this case I think having general military experience would serve a person much better in such a fight than having only studied 17th century martial arts.

A wealthy person had a great variety of weapons available to them. As well as pistols, rifles and muskets (which were very much in everyday use during the 17th century) bladed weapons that a person of means might carry include rapiers, broadswords, any type of long knife, basket-hilted swords, sabres, or in some cases pikes, warhammers and short spears.

Fighting seamen such as pirates would have fought with more simple weapons such as pistols, naval axes and hangers—thick, curved, single-edged swords. Essentially the same as messers, hangers were in use for hundreds of years as popular weapons but found special favour during the Age of Sail, where they evolved into the weapons known as cutlasses (derived from an Italian word for a ‘long knife’). The cutlass was the ideal close-combat weapon for ship use, but was not in widespread use until the very end of the naval era, despite being the most well-remembered weapon in our mythology and stories about that time. The earlier hanger and other broad-bladed swords were most often used by the military and were very useful in naval combat due to their short length, sturdy construction and terrific cutting power, which combined to make them excellent weapons within the tight quarters of a densely-rigged ship deck.

A 19th century French naval cutlass
A 19th century French naval cutlass

Q: Finally, if someone wanted to learn historical sword fighting today, where should they look? What do you recommend for beginners who can’t wait to jump in?

First I recommend watching ‘Back to the Source‘, an excellent documentary that was made recently about the historical European martial arts community. It covers a lot of what we do, is free to watch online and is very encouraging for folks just getting started!

There are many online resources, such as the Wiktenauer (a gigantic online library of historical European martial arts books) and terrific YouTube channels such as Schola Gladiatoria, which will give you an abundance of historical martial arts knowledge.
You can also check out the HEMA Alliance Club Finder to search for local groups practicing near you.

Failing all that, should you wish to do library or internet research yourself, you can look for ‘Western Martial Arts’, ‘Historical European Martial Arts’, ‘Historical Swordsmanship’ or ‘Historical Fencing’.

I’d recommend buying some kind of starter sword (which can be made of wood or synthetic) and practice hitting a target. Don’t buy a steel sword until you know if it will suit regular training. HEMA-oriented websites should help you find good, trustworthy brands of starter swords.

If you are training with a friend wear sturdy gloves and head protection at the very least! Many people buy fencing masks, which are good if you start sparring. If you do want to spar I’d also recommend wearing a mouthguard, some kind of joint, neck and torso protection, and groin protection for guys. Developing control is more important than having equipment, but safety gear needs to help keep you safe and confident while you learn. Personally, when I pick up a sword for practice I also put on safety glasses, which cost only a few dollars and are very good if your sword breaks or your friend slips and donks you in the eye!

HEMA is a growing movement and with the rich resources of the internet, it’s very possible to start a club if there are none in your area. There are a great variety other medieval combat groups as well. For people who are less interested in historical martial arts and perhaps want to do armoured combat, there are many sports groups that specialise in this which aren’t associated with HEMA, but are also a lot of fun.

The ACL (Armored Combat League) and HMB (Heavy Medieval Battle) are two similar international organisations who do very competitive, highly-athletic medieval combat.

There’s also the SCA (Society of Creative Anachronism) who also train with medieval armour and host impressive, huge battles, and some SCA groups offer really good rapier training. If you’re not ready to get hit with steel or even wooden swords you might want to get some experience using foam swords with LARPing groups. There are many fighters from the groups above who cross-train in the relaxed, fun environment that LARPing offers, and I know HEMA groups that use foam to build up confidence and awareness with beginners, especially youth. It’s fine to use lots of training tools so long as you remember what they are simulating- a sharp steel sword used in the art of self-defence.

Whatever path you choose, if you get a sword, find someone to teach you, make time to practice, and keep at it, you will be well on the way to becoming a competent swordsperson!

This was fantastic, Samantha! Thank you again for sharing your time and enthusiasm in the name of 7th Sea.

Want to follow Samantha’s work and adventures? Find her on:

Interview with Creative Director Leonard Balsera

Leonard BalseraLeonard Balsera is the Creative Director at John Wick Presents. He is best known for his design and development work on Evil Hat Productions’ various Fate system games, such as the award-winning Dresden Files RPG, but has worked across the breadth of the industry, with credits from Pelgrane Press, Fantasy Flight Games, Green Ronin, Margaret Weis Productions, Onyx Path Publishing, Steve Jackson Games, and many others. When he isn’t eating, breathing, and sleeping hobby games, he spoils his cats rotten, reads voraciously, performs on stage occasionally, and plays a lot of video games. He lives at the intersection of memory and dream, but his physical body resides in Austin, Texas.


Q: Lenny, we’re so thrilled to have you on board as Creative Director of John Wick Presents. You’re no stranger to the RPG industry! Your design credits include, among other things, work with Evil Hat Productions on the Dresden Files RPG and Fate Core, and licensing administration for Steve Jackson Games. What initially drew you to RPGs? At what point did you decide this glamorous industry was right for you?

Lenny: I would say the industry chose me, more than the other way around. My venture into professional work started at Evil Hat Productions—the short version of the story is that Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue found me in Fate’s fan community and brought me on to work on Spirit of the Century when their ambitions turned toward starting a publishing company.

While on the convention circuit promoting that game, I had a conversation with Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press, which led to my first freelance industry gig. And it basically happened that, year after year, I’d go to conventions and talk to people and end up with more jobs, or get references via the Internet. At some point, I looked back on that momentum in retrospect and said, “Huh, I guess I work in the hobby games industry now.”

Q: What were some of your earliest roleplaying inspirations—either games, systems, or designers? What are some of your big RPG inspirations now?

Lenny: Too numerous to mention. My particular brand of obsessiveness in the hobby is absorbing new systems, and I’ve been doing that since I started playing D&D as a kid. I feel like there’s a neat piece of design tech in just about every RPG, and it’s my job to find them all. Consequently, I’ve read more games than I’ve run or played.

A selection of favorite standouts, though, are Over the Edge, the Star Wars RPG from West End, Cyberpunk 2020, Feng Shui, HKAT, the James Bond RPG, every version of the Star Trek RPG, everything in the original World of Darkness, Primetime Adventures, Fiasco, basically everything Vincent Baker makes, Will Hindmarch’s Always/Never/Now, Epidiah Ravichol’s Swords Without Master… my tastes and preferences are all over the place.

And of course, 7th Sea.

Q: You’ve already jumped right into your work with JWP. Pretty soon you’ll be sleeping and dreaming 7th Sea! What are some of the things you’re most excited about in 7th Sea: Second Edition? (It’s pirates, right? It’s got to be pirates.)

Lenny: So, my enthusiasm for the original 7th Sea has a lot to do with it being one of the first RPGs I ever played where there was no “paying to suck” in character creation. D&D popularized the “zero to hero” thing, and a lot of RPGs in the 80s and 90s adopted that as a default assumption. 7th Sea was very much “hero from the word ‘go’,” and I fell in love with that dynamic. The second edition takes that even further, and I’m extremely happy about that.

I also really like a lot of the work that’s gone into the rebooted setting, so much so that it’s hard to pick a favorite element. Worldbuilding has always been one of 7th Sea’s core strengths, and it was awesome to see how that played out in the new edition. I’m also thrilled that we’ll get to see more of the world and go beyond the borders of Theah in upcoming books.

But pirates are cool too.

Q: A project as big as 7th Sea involves so many people at work on so many different moving pieces. There’s advertising, mechanics development, writing and editing, herding cats, managing production timelines. As Creative Director, can you talk a little bit about what your work will entail?

Lenny: My main job is to facilitate getting books out the door. That involves a lot of different tasks: keeping track of the schedule, making sure our developers and writers have what they need to do their jobs, brainstorming with creative staff to help them arrive at a clear vision for the work they’re doing, resolving logistical obstacles, shepherding a particular book through its various milestones and eventually to print, and making sure that the content we’re producing meets our standards of quality and is compatible with John’s vision for the world.

Q: Okay, saving the most important question for last! If you could travel to any one of the Théan nations, where would you visit and why? I hear tickets to Eisen are cheap this time of year.

Lenny: Castille. I want to join Los Vagabundos.

***

Thanks Lenny! We’re all so glad you’re here and I look forward to working with you!

Spirit of the 7th Sea: Interview with Blacksmith Jacob Lefton

Jacob Lefton, artist blacksmith
Jacob Lefton, artist blacksmith

Welcome to spirit of the 7th Sea, an interview series with experts and enthusiasts who share a passion for early modern European history.

Our first interview is with Jacob Lefton, an artist blacksmith who divides his time between the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts and Germany. After graduating from Hampshire College in 2008, Jacob spent six months traveling Europe as a journeyman blacksmith. His work can be found in homes, businesses, and public spaces up and down the east coast of the Unites States and in Europe, and has been featured in galleries on both sides of the Atlantic.

Jacob shared wonderful insights with us about blacksmithing, both present and past. We hope these insights inspire your adventures!


Thanks for taking the time to share your expertise with us, Jacob! Blacksmithing is a frequent feature in 7th Sea—from the Blacksmith’s Guild to the elegantly forged hilt of a Montaigne Musketeer’s sword. I’m excited to learn which pieces of your smithing knowledge players can fold into their own 7th Sea games.

Q: First, what drew you to blacksmithing? How did you get your start and what was the apprenticeship process like?

Jacob: I’ve been surrounded by metalwork for my whole life—when I was really young, my father would go forging damascus (pattern welded) steel with friends, and he said it was too dangerous for me to come, so I think that embedded the idea in my mind. When I went to Hampshire College, I found out there was an intro to blacksmithing class, and I jumped at the chance to take it. I messed around with it a bit more in college, and thought I was heading in a different direction for a while. However, after working for several months after graduation, I was really unhappy and quit my job in order to go to an artistic blacksmithing festival in Ukraine.

From there, I hopped from workshop to workshop across Ukraine, Sweden, Finland, and England for six months, sucking up as much knowledge of metalworking as possible. Part of it was really hard, because the language and isolation from traveling alone was difficult, but part of it was great, because there’s a kind of universal language of craft—I found there’s a level of thinking and building with my hands that allows me to communicate with almost anyone. I came back to the States with the thought ‘use it or lose it,’ so I started selling forged work. In six short years, I went from struggling to feed myself to making some pretty big, nice pieces of functional work, as well as sculptural art.

lefton-bedframe
Jacob posing with a mixed-materials bed frame, 2013.

This only thematically stacks up with a regular apprenticeship as one in the 17th century would look. Around 14, a kid would become an apprentice to a master. They would spend 3-4 years working in the shop, first doing menial tasks like cleaning and taking care of equipment, and slowly working up to more important tasks like making nails or tools or helping with the shop’s commissions. One guy I know had an apprenticeship back in the early 1960s, and spent his early years straightening metal, because they got one type of steel in large coils, another blacksmith who apprenticed in the early 1900’s spent some of his apprenticeship time forge-welding scraps back together, because the metal was expensive. Apprenticeships still happen in Germany for many trades, though they start at 16-17 now.

After an apprenticeship comes the journeymanship, which lasts for several years. During this time the journeyman works towards a master-piece, and may have the option to join a guild. Journeymanship is still a structure across Europe for some trades, but it’s far less pervasive than it was.

The journeyman leaves home with the clothes they’re wearing, a small bag of belongings (including personal tools like a hammer and tongs), and they’re not allowed to come within 50km of their hometown for the period of their journeymanship. They get a gold earring (the hole is punched with a small punch on the anvil), and the earring can be torn out by an angry master or used to pay for their coffin if they don’t make it back home. Photos on the wikipedia page show you the traditional clothes a Geselle (german for ‘companion’) would wear. I doubt these go back to the 1680’s, but definitely late 18th century/early 19th century. The bell-bottoms are so you don’t get scraps and shavings from the workshop in your shoes (woodworkers would have worn wooden clogs). I’ve met french compagnon and Danish journeymen carpenters, some women and some men. It was likely mostly men in our 17th century.

A note on women in the workshop: Many women practiced these crafts. Families often supported the workshops, and women were quite capable craftspeople. Especially in societies that would levy the able-bodied men for wartime, women would take over the craft-work on the homefront, and I’m sure they would help run the business side of the workshop during peacetime, which would require them having working knowledge of the craft… and there’s plenty of woodcuts and sketches of women working in these workshops.

Sign for Journeyman Restaurant in Union Square, Somerville, MA. Created by Jacob Lefton.
Sign for Journeyman Restaurant in Union Square, Somerville, MA. Created by Jacob Lefton.

Q: If I were to walk into a 17th century blacksmith’s shop, can you describe the scene I’d expect to see? I don’t have any specialized blacksmithing knowledge, so I’m picturing some coal, a fiery forge, an anvil, and…maybe an iron poker. Can you help me expand on that visual?

Jacob: If you walk into a 17th century blacksmith’s shop, you’re likely going to see something quite similar to what you imagine today. There’s a forge or fire of some kind in one part of the shop, anvils and metal bits, there will be benches for working on smaller stuff, as well as tools lining the walls. There will be all kinds of specialized tools depending on what kind of shop it is: devices for making tires for cartwheels, water and oil to quench material, a big fireplace to hang things over to put on a blackened linseed oil coating for weather protection, all kinds of specialized tongs and stakes… The anvil may or may not look like the horned shape you expect. Many anvils were trade-specific shapes, and might be a short squat square with a weird corner for specific applications, or a set of specific stakes. Depending on where you are in the world, you could have an anvil stone. And, there’s going to be a set of bellows to stoke the fire, that could be worked by the blacksmith, an apprentice, or a child.

Additionally, it’s probably really dim in there—a blacksmith often judges the temperature of the metal by the color of the glow, which is obscured by bright light. The floor might be made of small hardwood blocks on end, which take impact and wear pretty well and smoke when something hot falls on them, so one can find it easily. Plus, they’re softer than brick or stone, so it’s less punishing on one’s back.

The Blacksmith's Forge by Johannes Dircksz
The Blacksmith’s Forge by Johannes Dircksz (1647)

Q: And what about a modern blacksmith’s shop? Have there been major technological advances in blacksmithing since the late 1600s, or have the materials and techniques remained more or less the same?

Jacob: When we think about pre-industrial revolution blacksmithing, we tend to think of people working with all hand tools and no power tools, which is right, in a sense. I’ve heard die-hard historical accuracy blacksmiths say that power tools make them feel sick, but it’s kind of a weird position to have. Workers have been trying to gain a mechanical advantage for as long as they’ve been working, and one generation’s primitive tool is a previous generation’s cutting-edge technological marvel. You won’t find electrical tools in a 17th century smithy, but you will find things that amount to power tools. (You can be sure that if you did let an angle-grinder or electric welder wander into one of those shops, it would be used in an instant).

Depending on the work they do and whether they’re near a river, a shop might have a waterwheel to power a water hammer (the one in the video below is much newer, probably 18th/19th century). There’s still a 13th/14th century water hammer running in Ukraine.

It takes two people to operate, one to control the hammer speed and one to move the steel. They make something like ten farm tools a day with the hammer. They don’t talk to each other when it runs —the master smith (the one holding the material) simply nods or shakes his head. One of the sites I came across while researching this has a roman-era waterwheel. Basically any source of energy people have been able to utilize, they have.

Don Dupuis from Hampshire told me about a knife-making town he visited in France that was organized around a river, and each shop specializing in a different part of the process was hooked up to a water wheel.

In other places, like forging anchors, you’ll find sledgehammer teams. Every group has their own way of keeping rhythm, but you can see how it is when they get going.

Because they don’t have power tools that can be pushed to the edge and used inappropriately to still attain decent results all their tools are going to be very specialized and valuable. For example, there will be files of all sizes—and I mean all sizes! You’ve probably seen and held little files for doing fine work, but some of these things are four feet long and have comparatively giant teeth. Because there’s no angle grinder or power sander, people would square things up by hand, using the weight of the tool to do the work.

Blacksmith's tools. Photo credit Penny Mayes, Geograph UK.
Blacksmith’s tools. Photo credit Penny Mayes, Geograph UK.

In terms of being different from a modern shop, it’s hard to say. I think the details would be unfamiliar, but the structure would be familiar. There was a project from some US blacksmiths through a few decades between the 70’s and 90’s to collect photos of every blacksmith’s shop they visited in the States, to see how people worked. The thing was, after a while, they all start to look the same. There are patterns of craft work. Because the general techniques and workflow are similar, and people set their shops up in similar ways, you’ll find that blacksmith/fabricators today have similar shops across the world, and toolmakers and machinists are going to have some broad similarities across the decades and centuries. Certainly, some people are more or less clever or more or less organized, but overall, I think the craft space is going to be familiar.

Q: Before the industrial revolution, you were likely to find a smithy in every European town. What are some common household items that are now industrially produced, but would have required the work of a blacksmith back then?

Jacob: While it is true that you’re likely to find a smithy in every town, it’s not necessarily true that every town would have a blacksmith equipped to handle the necessary work, or that there’s enough work in a small town to support a full time smith. The village of Rixdorf is part of Neukölln in Berlin, and it has an old forge location. The Rixdorfer Schmiede has existed in one form or another since 1624, and back then, it wasn’t occupied all the time. A blacksmith would travel out from the city periodically to the various towns around Berlin, probably with some of his own equipment, and would stay for some time fixing and making things.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are so many different metal trades. Pre-industrial revolution, manufacturing was done by hand! Pretty much every single piece of metal good would have to pass through a blacksmith’s hands. Remember those specialists I keep mentioning—Das Ständebuch, a book of trades from 1568 lists and illustrates at least these: the Locksmith, the Spurrier (makes spurs), the Coppersmith, the Nailsmith, the Scythe-Smith, the Armorer, the Smith, the Basin-Maker, the (Mail) Armor-Maker, etc. There will be clockmakers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, casting specialists, anchor-makers… everything. So, pretty much every single piece of metal good is handmade! Cart tires and horseshoes are a big industry. Carriage bolts (really any bolts) are hand cut, and each nut is specific to the bolt it goes on—so don’t lose one!

Most blacksmiths were making these mundane everyday objects. Cowbells, hinges, nails, metal bowls, fittings of various kinds. Railings, gates, hooks, lots and lots of hardware, farm tools, workers tools, scissors…

Remember those files I mentioned earlier? There’s a specialist, a file-maker, whose job is to literally cut every one of those teeth by hand using specialized sets of punches that he likely makes himself. He’s probably going to have a bench by a window somewhere, and a fire where he can anneal, harden, and temper the steel.

The craft of ‘whitesmithing’ was equally important. This is the process of filing out all those ugly hammer and forge marks. Things for everyday use close to people, like candle holders, silverware, doorhandles, etc, would be sanded and filed and polished and waxed. For example, half of scissor making is taking the rough forged blanks and polishing them… The aesthetic we have today of liking the rough forged hammer texture definitely did not exist back then!

Q: How were blacksmiths regarded in early modern Europe? Did blacksmiths receive any special treatment or accolades?

Jacob: I think this is definitely a mixed bag! In some stories, the blacksmith is called the king of trades, because he can make his own tools, whereas any other trade that requires metal tools must go to the blacksmith. There’s a story about King Arthur deciding this after quizzing all the tradesmen.

However, blacksmiths were also linked to the devil, because of their association with fire. There’s a Russian or slavic story about the devil running through the blacksmith’s shop to get shined up again. I don’t really know the details of this one, only that someone made a sculpture of the story that I saw in the east Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

Photograph of one of the sculptures from Donetsk, Forged Figures Park. (Click image for Wikimedia link)
Photograph of one of the sculptures from Donetsk, Forged Figures Park. (Click image for Wikimedia link)

I do know that often blacksmith shops were positioned at the edge of town or near bodies of water. They had a tendency to burn down, and there was an effort to prevent them from taking the rest of the town with them.

Q: A blacksmith works with iron and steel. Would a 17th century blacksmith have worked with other metals as well, or would they have sought the help of a silver or goldsmith if a piece required precious metals?

Jacob: This isn’t something I can really speak to, but I think a blacksmith is going to do a little bit of copper work if he needs. However, most blacksmiths aren’t going to be collaborating too much. Unless it’s really high end or complicated work, I don’t think the average metalsmiths will be intermingling. More likely, the shop that’s producing the multiple-metal pieces (jewelry, specialized mechanisms, etc) will have the expertise to work the materials as necessary, or pieces of a larger operation will be subcontracted by an engineer/inventor, artist, or architect.

Q: And a followup question! Because so many pieces require mixed materials, what other artisans and craftspeople might a blacksmith work closely with? How often do you use mixed materials in your own work?

Jacob: I would expect blacksmiths to work with woodworkers and stonemasons. Much of their work is going to be making tools or fittings for others’ work. Coopers who make barrels need metal bands. Carts need cartwheels. Carpenters will have chisels. They can make handles for knives, though I assume a knifesmith is going to be equipped to make their own handles. Shipwrights will have dedicated blacksmiths. A boat at sea will have a blacksmith to make simple repairs in a safe place (what with the fire).

Q: Finally, can you share any blacksmithing terms or lingo that can be used to make smithing in 7th Sea feel more authentic?

Jacob:

Terms

  • Forging — make or shape by heating an object in a fire or furnace and hammering it. Cold forging is a real thing. Copper alloys are often cold forged until they work-harden and then they are annealed.
  • Annealing — the process of heating a metal object so the internal stresses relax.
  • Hardening — the process of heating and quickly quenching a metal object to build up internal crystal structure and internal tension.
  • Tempering — Heating hardened metal to relax it to a desired hardness. The simple description: tools and knives are annealed so they’re uniformly relaxed, then hardened all the way, and then tempered to reach the desired hardness of the cutting or working surface.
  • Dies — the upper and lower forging surfaces. A hammer is a top die and the anvil is a bottom die.
  • Swages — specially shaped forging dies for particular shapes.
  • Jig — a device that holds a piece of work and guides the tool operating on it. ** IMPORTANT NOTE ** most things that a blacksmith makes regularly are going to have a set of swages and jigs for working and bending the form in repeated ways. Most of production blacksmithing is about figuring out the most efficient and usable jigs possible to repeat the making of objects as fast as possible. Even nail-making has special plates for preserving the point and forging the head flat.
  • Blank — an unfinished/unpolished piece of work. A knife blank is the metal in the shape of the knife, no edge, unpolished. Hinge blanks might have no detail put in, and no holes for securing to the door.

Techniques

  • Drawing out – making the bar longer.
  • Fullering – using something rounded to push the metal in controlled direction – think about the groove in the center of a sword, for example.
  • Pointing – making a point.
  • Upsetting – pushing the metal back into itself to thicken it up.
  • Punching – using a blunt object with sharp edges to remove a slug from the bar.
  • Slitting – cutting the metal using a sharp object.
  • Welding – Sticking the metal together using heat to melt it to itself.
  • Brazing – sticking the metal together with a lower heat to melt a binding material.
  • Soldering – even lower heat joining of metal.
  • Pattern welding – folding layers of different alloy steel together, which produces specific desired characteristics (strength, flexibility), and with an acid etch treatment the different metals show up as layers.
  • “Damascus Steel” – what we often call pattern welding today. True damascus steel was traded from Damascus which was the Western interface of the silk road. The actual material came from a specific geography in India and is called “Wootz steel”, a completely different alloy from the carbon steel.

This was fantastic, Jacob! Thank you again for sharing your time and enthusiasm. Smooth sailing to you!


Want to follow Jacob’s work and adventures? Find him on Twitter @watermosaic.