Presented here courtesy of Ross Dean is a brief evaluation of the Del Tin schiavona. Other than the famous and popular rapier there are numerous forms of renaissance cut & thrust swords that were used throughout the 1500s and 1600s. These include Swiss katzbalgers, English & German back-swords, hangers, cutlasses, and the beautiful Italian schiavona (pronounced "skya-vona"). Although cage and basket-hilts were know as early as 1520, the schiavona is a fairly uncommon sword. Surviving samples are somewhat rare and only a few replicas are available of this unique cage-hilt blade with its distinctive cats-head pommel.

Antique & Replica Schiavonas

by Ross Dean

schiavona-1.jpg (15449 bytes)Del Tin reproduction swords have a deserved reputation for value and for their excellent blade quality. This is an assessment of the Del Tin schiavona in the light of my examination of two antique schiavona swords offered for sale in the United Kingdom.

To set the context for this comparison, I will first reproduce a history of the schiavona that was provided by Fulvio Del Tin at my request, shortly after I had purchased my own schiavona directly from him. To quote:

"In regards to your questions about the period of the schiavonas, the first examples are dated around the 1580 - 1590. The first ones had a simple hilt and a double-edged blade. The schiavona you have is a type used in the early 1600s16001600, (c. 1620), still having a double-edged blade. In the following decades schiavonas developed in more complex hilt and had a narrow, single edge blade [Ed.’s note: a "back-sword"]. This kind of sword remained in use until the very late 1700s ."

Fulvio Del Tin’s description of the history of the schiavona makes sense of a number of partial explanations offered by other authorities. Steven Bull (pages 13-14, "European Swords", 1994, Shire Publications Ltd, Princes Risborough, England, ISBN 0 7478 0234 3) describes schiavonas as cavalry swords dating from the end of the seventeenth century. He endorses the view that, " the name [schiavona] derives from the Italian word for ‘Slavonic’ as the Doge of Venice had a corps of Slav bodyguards armed with weapons of this type." In an earlier volume (page 125, "An Historical Guide to Arms and Armour", 1991, Studio Editions Ltd, London, England, ISBN 1 85170 723 9), Bull describes schiavonas as being northern European or Italian swords, popular with the Venetians. He points out that the type was notable for the cross-guard which extended forward of the quillons. In this (short) summary, Bull suggests that the use of the schiavona was confined to the late 1600s and early 1700s.

A fine schiavona, with a pommel of brass and semi-precious stones, and a guard that is less complex than the Del Tin reproduction, is shown in Frederick Wilkinson’s book "Arms & Armour" (page 94, 1996, Chancellor Press, London, England, ISBN 85152 957 8). Wilkinson describes schiavonas as, "a sword used by mercenaries employed by Venice". In keeping with Bull’s description, Wilkinson limits the schiavona to the late 1600s and early 1700s. I have also read that the schiavona may have had some influence on the development of Scottish basket-hilted swords in seventeenth and subsequent centuries. I will attempt to re-discover the particular references for this claim a later date.

In the light of Fulvio’s description, the two schiavonas that I handled (courtesy of Trident Arms, Nottingham, England) date from approximately 1620 AD or later. From memory (I did not record the measurements or my immediate impressions at the time and saw them some four weeks ago), the schiavonas I handled, for about 30 minutes, may be described as follows:

Sword 1 had an (approximately) 35-inch (89 cm) long, double-edged, single fullered blade that tapered to a narrow, slightly rounded, symmetrical point. The blade width was about 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) at the hilt. The blade, although dulled by age, was only slightly pitted, with eight or so small nicks on the lower edge and three or four on the back edge. The sword was approximately 41 inches (104 cm) in overall length. The hilt, which displayed evidence of at least two blade-edge impacts, was slightly more complex that the Del Tin hilt (image 1) and very similar to that shown in the second attached image.

While I am by no means an expert on Renaissance metalworking, I believe that the hilt was of wrought iron and forged rather than welded. The cats-head pommel was brass and, in decoration, similar to the Del Tin pommel. The forward-extending crossguard was very similar to that of my Del Tin sword, and thus provided, at best, only the bare minimum of cover for the forefinger if it were placed on the blade’s ricasso.

As with my Del Tin reproduction, the hilt guard incorporated a thumb-rest that facilitates a surprising degree of control of the blade. The grip was bound in leather covered with close-wound wire. The blade balanced approximately 3 inches (7.6 cm) from the tang. There was only the slightest movement between the blade and the hilt and I accepted the dealer’s explanation of age and wear, rather than re-building or forgery, as the cause. The sword balanced superbly in my hand and would have been a useful weapon for cut-and-thrust swordplay. During its working life, the sword would also have been robust enough for sustained military action. On a personal note, the hilt was smaller than that of my Del Tin and would have been a tight fit for my hand if I had been wearing thick gauntlets (I am 6 feet (1.8 m) tall with hands about average for my stature). Compared to typical early seventeenth century schiavona hilts, the back quillon was deliberately and carefully bent back on itself, towards the blade.

Sword 2 had a 34-inch (86 cm), double-edged, single-fullered blade and was 40 inches (101 cm) in overall length. The blade was approximately 1.25 inches (3 cm) wide at the hilt. The cats-head pommel was made of iron with similar decoration to that of image 2. The back quillon was only slightly bent, in keeping with the Del Tin and most historical schiavona swords. Otherwise, sword 2 was very similar to sword 1. However, the hilt was loose and the grip wire seemed to have been recently repaired. While the weapon was again finely balanced, and the blade and hilt each seemed to be genuine antiques, I suspect that they were joined only recently. I will therefore say only that the hilt was typical of the schiavona style reproduced by Del Tin. As with the first sword, the hilt was relatively heavy and constructed using wrought iron for both the guard and, in this case, the pommel.

The Del Tin reproduction has a 33-inch (84 cm) long, double-edged, single-fullered blade that narrows from 1.75 inches (4.4 cm) at the hilt to 1.25 inches (3 cm) some 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) before the sharp yet rounded tip. The sword weighs about 3.3 pounds (1500 grams). Compared to the above historical examples, the blade is broader and far less tapered towards the point. Given the development of the schiavona sword summarized by Fulvio Del Tin, this is a reasonable and historically acceptable difference in style. In contrast to the first schiavona described above, and to the second more suspect example, the blade balances 6 inches (15 cm) from the hilt.

The Del Tin schiavona’s chrome-vanadium blade is one of the best I have experienced, being flexible without excessive "wobble" and hard without being too brittle. Yet, having sparred and practiced solo (movement sequences and test cutting) with the sword, I have come to the conclusion that it is somewhat heavy in the hand. This is due to the metal used in the construction of the guard and pommel. While the complex design accurately reflects the schiavona hilts described above, the metal used is lightweight in comparison. In construction it is welded as opposed to forged which weakens the protective basket. My particular example had a somewhat dull finish to the hilt, although a few minutes with a hand-drill and buffing wheels produced a fine sheen, close to that of the blade. It may be that Del Tin is reproducing the finish observed on the original sword. If so, a few words to this effect would ease the minds of customers such as myself. The pommel is lighter that either of the historical pommels described above. If Del Tin were to produce a forged, machine-tool steel basket and pommel, or use some similar steel equivalent to old wrought iron (which is no longer available in the UK), then I estimate that the balance of the sword would be between 3 and 4 inches (7.6 to 10 cm) from the hilt. The result would be a better balanced and truly formidable reproduction of a Renaissance battlefield weapon.

In summary, the Del Tin schiavona has a superb blade married to an average hilt. The result is a blade-heavy weapon that is certainly value for money but somewhat compromised by the construction (not the design) of the guard and pommel. Overall, I am happy with the balance of quality verses price offered by Del Tin for the schiavona, but my question to Fulvio is how much extra would we have to pay for a schiavona with a hilt and pommel forged from wrought iron or its modern equivalent? Given the deadly elegance of a balanced schiavona, I think that I would be more than willing to pay the extra.

Finally, in reply to my inquires, Fulvio Del tin offered the following: "The early Schiavonas of the late 1500s to beginning of the 1600s had a heavier and double-edged blade. Later Schiavonas had a narrow, single edge blade that was lighter. It is said that my sword has a very good balance, even if in some case they are a little heavier compared to the original pieces. It is due to the fact that nowadays there is no reason to make sharpened blades, as they could be too dangerous (handling them). Also sharpened blades could not last long to all those people that practice sword fighting at the present day. The hilt is hand made, but it is not completely forged. Anyway, the schiavona is now discontinued."

*Editor's Note: In Switzerland I had the pleasure of examining and playing with two superb examples whose long blades (aprox. 42") were almost rapier-like (see pictures under European Sword Research Trip). Both were slender and light and one still even had its original leather finger wrap around the ricasso. Only Windlass Steelcraft of India now offers a replica schiavona (through Museum Replicas’ Ltd). Similar to he Del Tin, this blackened model is sadly also far too heavy to comfortably wield in comparison to the originals.

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