The tang and pommel of a real euro sword is very important. If you are going to take the time, and money to buy a high-carbon steel blade, do yourself a favor and get the sword that has the right pommel too. Most of the time, if the steel is made of high-carbon steel, the tang is going to be a full tang – tapered style and not a ‘rat tail tang’. This article will teach you all you should know about real sword tangs and pommels and the different ways to construct them. You want to read this article well and understand the differences between all of the construction methods. The last thing you want to do is swing your sword and have the blade fly off and hurt, or worse, kill someone.
**Important – I highly recommend you buy a sword with a full tang – tapered style and peened pommel if you are intending on using the sword for cutting practice. I do not recommend buying a sword with a welded tang and/or screw on pommel for cutting practice or any use other than wall hanging. Welded tangs and screw-on pommels can be dangerous if used for anything other than display.**
European Sword Tangs
There are many different methods of giving a sword it’s tang. Some of these methods are cheap and dangerous while other methods are safe and authentic. I consider a sword to be real when it can demonstrate that it has a tapered style full tang and peened pommel with high-carbon steel.
So what is the tang exactly? The tang of a sword is the part of the steel that comes from the base of the blade into the grip of the sword. There are many methods, as stated above, of creating a tang for a grip. Some of these methods are cheap and dangerous. Such a method is one called a ‘rat tail tang’. Credit goes to the author of this image from martialtalk.com. I don’t have my own image of a ‘rat tail tang’ because I don’t buy the swords ;).
As you can see, the tang is small and pathetic. Even worse, it is welded on the sword via tack welds which are a fairly weak weld and can snap at any given time there is stress placed on the sword. A couple of my buddies have bought swords over the years that were cheap. They, of course, would swing their sword around. Thankfully the weld of the tang held up and never broke, but there were times that the entire hilt of the sword would bend because the tang would bend due to the crappy metal and size of the tang. Young and naive, they would just bend the tang back into place and continue their antics.
I would like for you to watch a video from Paul Southren of what happens when you get a sword with a ‘rat tail tang’ and crappy construction.
That is the perils of a ‘rat tail tang’ construction. So as you can plainly see, a sword that sports this style of tang is obviously not a real sword. Period. However, there is hope for sword collectors worldwide. The ‘rat tail tang’ is not the only tang construction out there and thankfully, it is not the authentic method.
The authentic method of creating a safe and functional tang for a sword is by using a single piece of steel for both the sword and the tang. The construction of a ‘full tang – tapered design’ is achieved by bringing the steel from the blade right through the cross guard into the grip at a gradual angle so that it comes to a tip at the end. After you put the cross guard on and wedge it tightly onto the blade, you put your grip on the tang and then the pommel on top of that. The pommel slides right over the tip of the end of the tang and then is hopefully hot peened. There are other methods for securing the pommel to the sword, but I prefer peened and also consider it the only authentic method for real swords. This is the ‘full tang’ method in a nutshell.
Pretty much all real functional European swords use a tapered design full tang or different designs for numerous reasons. Full tangs of different designs help give weight to the back portion of the sword to help balance out the blade weight from it’s length. Unfortunately, this weight is not enough and thus a pommel must be used to help counter the blade weight. Another reason for using a full tang of different designs is that the sword can be swung with more force due to the leverage provided by the full tang. It is a structurally sound method of construction. Probably the most common full tang design you will encounter is the ‘tapered tang’. This is authentic and constitutes a real sword.
You can find other tang designs from the tang search from Wikipedia or find them below in a quote.
Common tang styles found in swords and knives
It should be noted that most of these design styles can be used with full or partial tangs and the use of one does not exclude the use of another. For example, a sword may have a hidden, encapsulated, rat-tail tang.
Push Tang: the tang is inserted or pushed into a pre-made handle and fastened in place.
Encapsulated Tang: handle material is molded around the tang itself and fastened in place.
Hidden Tang: the tang is fastened within the handle such that neither the tang nor the mechanism by which it is fastened is visible on the surface of the handle. A hidden tang may be accomplished in a number of ways. The simplest way to accomplish a hidden tang is with epoxy. A more sophisticated method is to construct the tang with a small protrusion (or a protrusion may be welded onto it) which fits into a notch in the handle, preventing the blade from being withdrawn from the handle. Another common method is to cut bolt-threading into the end of the tang whereby a pommel-nut screws into place. Inexpensive decorative knives and swords occasionally feature a hidden false tang consisting of a separate thin bolt welded to a stub tang on the blade, the bolt is then inserted through the handle and fastened in place by a pommel-nut.
Stick and Rat-Tail Tangs: the transition from blade to tang involves an abrupt decrease in the amount of stock metal such that the tang is narrower than the rest of the tool, moreso when the transition resembles that between a rat‘s thick body and its thin tail. A narrow tang provides less material strength to the tool than a wider tang but is also lighter and can be constructed to provide sufficient strength to prevent failure of the tang during use of the tool. It is a common misconception that all rat-tail tangs are weak and unsuitable in tools designed for hard or heavy use. Historically, the majority of swords and bladed tools produced prior to the advent of modern machinery and techniques featured such tangs as an indirect result of the forging process. The failure-rate of properly designed stick-tangs is quite low, and the vast majority of catastrophic failures in swords and knives occurs in the blade, not the tang. Features of a well made stick-tang include the following: increased ductility relative to the blade, uniform grain structure at the transition between blade and tang, and a more gradual/less abrupt (and preferably radiused) transition.
Tapered Tang: the width of the tang gradually decreases in one or more dimensions along its length. Tapered tangs may feature thinning along the spine from blade to pommel, thinning from spine to belly, or even hollowing from the edges toward the midsection of the tang-stock. This is an uncommon but sophisticated design used to reduce the amount of material (and thereby the weight) in the handle of the tool without significant sacrifice of strength along horizontal and vertical vectors.
Skeletonized Tang: large sections along the tang are cut away, reducing the amount of stock material to a basic framework while still providing structural support. This is another sophisticated, modern method of reducing the material weight of the tang without sacrificing significant material strength or support. Skeletonized tangs are also commonly utilized to provide storage space in the handle of the tool.
Extended Tang: the tang extends beyond the grip of the handle. In knives, the extended tang may function as a hammer-pommel.
There are different methods of securing the pommel to the tang. We will talk about these methods below.
A matter of pommels
This section will be a little quick. It is fairly straight forward.
The pommel is a very important part of the sword for many reasons. The two main reasons for having a pommel is to help balance the sword and to compress the hilt components together for a secure fit! It’s really annoying when you get a sword and you find out it has horrible ‘hilt shake’…
There are a few common methods for securing a pommel to the end of the tang. The three most common are the peened, nut, and threaded methods. We will start with the, in my opinion, most annoying type of method, the nut method.
The nut method is accomplished by threading the end of tang and placing the pommel over the tang. The threaded tang will stick out past the pommel allowing a nut to be screwed onto the end of the tang to tighten the pommel onto the sword. Not only is this not authentic, but the nut can come loose over time and become dangerous if you intend to use your sword for cutting. It can be OK for display, but I find that some swords that feature this method are just a couple dollars cheaper than a peened pommel.
The next method is the threaded tang method. This is similar to the nut method but doesn’t require the nut. Instead, the pommel itself is female threaded so that it can screw right onto the end of the threaded tang. This makes for a more cosmetically appealing sword as you don’t have a nut on the pommel, but this method has it’s issues that can sometimes render the sword worthless of anything except untouched display. I have owned a couple threaded pommel swords and have had some issues with a few of them. As you may have guessed, the pommel can become loose over time. This requires sometimes constant tightening and can sometimes wear out the threads inside the pommel, especially if you over tighten it on the threaded tang. This will strip out the threads and make it to where your pommel will not fasten onto the tang anymore. Congratulations, you have just made yourself a display piece ONLY now! So, I do not recommend this method either. And, it is not authentic either.
Finally, we have the authentic and preferred method. The peened pommel! You can see in the picture to your right that this pommel is neither screwed on nor does it have a nut. This is considered a peened pommel and is the authentic method for securing the pommel to the sword. Peening the pommel is accomplished by heating up the end of the tang sticking out from the pommel and then hammering it flat over the pommel. Peening is often done directly on the pommel or sometimes the swordsmith will use a peen block. This sword in particular uses a peen block, which is the square piece placed on top of the pommel. A peened pommel compresses the hilt components together so that you do not get ‘hilt shake’ and this method is strong and keeps the sword from loosening up over time, as there is no threaded parts! This is the only method of pommel construction that I will consider for being able to call a sword ‘real’.
From what I understand, you can either hot peen the pommel or cold peen the pommel. Most swordsmiths will use the hot peen method and then grind the excess down to create an appealing cosmetic appearance.
**On a personal note, I will only buy European swords that are constructed with a peened pommel.**
So I have given you some great information on different types of tangs and pommel construction methods. You can take this information and make an educated decision now when you are buying a sword. The peening method is the only truly authentic method used for created traditional European swords. Swords using this construction method are extremely strong and worthy of being called a real sword.
Of course, there are plenty of cool looking display pieces that you could be very happy owning. Just know that they are often not intended for use and are not marketed as functional swords. Sometimes they may be called ‘real’ as they feature high-carbon blades and are often sharp. Just hear my word of caution that they are indeed not ‘real’ authentic swords and can fail due to their construction methods. You can find many well made authentic swords as well as swords more geared towards display at Swords.com. Some trusted sword manufacturers are CAS Hanwei, Darksword Armory, Cold Steel, Valiant Armory, and United Cutlery. If your budget allows, check out Albion Swords.
Of course, a full tapered tang and peened pommel isn’t the only thing that constitutes a ‘real’ sword. You should check out the introduction to What makes a European sword real article for more great information on real swords as well as the steel types for real European swords article.