Swords of Conyers

Museum Replicas make a knight of a knave

Can I be Orlando Bloom? Just for a little while?

Of course not - not for a second. I appreciate that Orlando Bloom in real life isn't really Orlando Bloom the movie star. He can't actually scramble up the side of giant elephants, shoot arrows into their skulls and surf down their trunks. But in The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean and the upcoming Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven (opening May 6), Bloom sets hearts aflutter as the cineplex's most glorious swashbuckler.

I'm unlikely to ever get seven-figure paychecks to do the same.

But Museum Replicas Ltd. can foster the illusion that I could trade blows with pirates, gladiators and crusaders. Since the early 1980s, the Conyers company has created and sold functional weapons and garments from history's most thrilling eras - from Greek and Roman through medieval and Renaissance - along with numerous movie tie-ins.

When I embarked on my quest, traveling up the wilds of I-20 East, I imagined that Museum Replicas would resemble something like Saruman's armory in The Fellowship of the Ring, complete with clanging anvils and a forge fired by the flames of hell. The building doesn't disappoint: Its facade evokes a Disneyland castle.

But though the journeymen of Conyers design the weapons and garments, and its warehouse contains everything from axes to stilettos, its parent company, Windlass Steelcraft of India, does the actual manufacturing.

The showroom bristles with armaments and displays ensembles such as stitch-perfect imitations of Liv Tyler's elfin Lord of the Rings gowns, as well as my favorite, the full armor of Monty Python and the Holy Grail's Black Knight (all limbs still intact). Bargain bins offer marked-down items you'd use to cut and gut invading marauders.

But how did a Conyers company become a historical armory?

Hank Reinhardt founded Museum Replicas while working for Atlanta Cutlery Corp., a mail-order knife company. A longtime member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, an international group dedicated to historical re-creation, Reinhardt saw a market for affordable, functional swords and launched Museum Replicas with about 10 swords in its first catalog.

"We earned almost $1 million the first year, and that was with swords selling for $125-$150," says Reinhardt, an affable man who can talk about which shield is best for fighting on horseback as matter-of-factly as discussing fishing techniques.

Museum Replicas' catalog suggests J. Peterman for time-traveling warriors: Catalog entries will wax eloquent on, say, the trendiest English sword of 1424 A.D.

You might not know anyone who personally owns an authentic German war hammer, but Reinhardt estimates that between sword collectors, period re-enactors and other Renaissance Festival regulars, Museum Replicas has almost 3 million repeat customers in America alone. The new company's customers quickly began asking for different kinds of weapons, then armor, then "casual" clothes of the period.

"We've gotten away from 'costume in a bag' manufacturing to period garments that people would actually wear," says Dave DiPietro, director of sales and marketing. "You could roll around outside for a while in one and nothing's going to fall apart."

The company also landed movie licenses, like its new line for Kingdom of Heaven, in which Bloom plays a French blacksmith-turned-knight defending Jerusalem from Muslim siege.

Museum Replicas has kind of a reciprocal relationship with Hollywood. The company can sell period-specific swords directly to movies and TV shows that need them, with clients including "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer," PAX-TV's current musketeer series, "Young Blades," and HBO's upcoming "Rome."

Museum Replicas also builds and markets exact imitations of weapons and costumes used in movies. Only the replicas prove more real than their cinematic counterparts.

For instance, Bloom's "Sword of Ibelin" in Kingdom of Heaven looks great on film, but it's only an aluminum prop that would last just a few seconds in an actual fight.

Museum Replicas makes swords that actually work. "Our swords are battle-worthy, not that anyone will actually battle with one, but it could be the sword passed down for generations," says DiPietro, who estimates that about 5 percent of customers use the weapons for actual sparring.

Weapons ship with pointy tips and unsharpened blades, but the new owner could get one sharpened and start dueling. DiPietro recalls attending a merchandising meeting with Kingdom of Heaven director Ridley Scott, who hefted one of the new blades and exclaimed, "Oh, a real sword!"

Finally, I get my chance to stand in Bloom's shoes. Or in this case, armor. (Apparently, I wear the same size tunic as Bloom, so I've got that going for me.)

I struggle into a chain-mail shirt and coif (that hairnet-looking thing) and need help buckling my scabbard to my waist. Admittedly, it's kind of a rush to grip a real, shining sword by the hilt and brandish it.

But though the aluminum mail weighs about one-third of the real thing, it's still a major load, like the lead smock you have to wear getting dental X-rays. Beneath that and my helmet, I feel less like a knight of the realm and more like an unusually well-armed turtle.

Certainly, some weekend warriors would get used to being armed to the teeth. But I get winded after less than an hour, and I certainly can't drop more than $1,000 to take the whole get-up home.

Apparently, I'm not ready for Kingdom of Heaven: Orlando Bloom will have to defend Jerusalem without me.