How Were Swords Really Made?  

By John Clements  

Just as with the subject of swords and swordsmanship, historical swordsmithing is also something currently filled with considerable myth and misconception.  

At different times and in different regions throughout the Medieval and Renaissance eras a variety of swords were devised for a variety of demands. There was a natural competition at work between arms and armor, as a man needed one to fight effectively and the other to stay safe. The result was a diverse family of single and double hand swords for cutting, thrusting, or cutting and thrusting. These might be straight or curved, slender or wide, tapered or not, and single or double-edged.  

But just how swords were made is something rarely presented in an easily understood manner and a good deal of confusion surrounds this topic today. The technical terminology and debate involved can often overwhelm the modern student of spathology (the study of historical swords).  

It must first be appreciated that a sword is unlike any other object. There is nothing else to which it can really be analogous. It is a fighting tool, but it is not simply a giant knife or a huge razorblade nor is it just a heavy hunk of long flat metal with a handle. A sword is a unique instrument with its own functional properties dependent upon its design.  

As a tool the sword was the premier personal weapon of the professional warrior and unlike other weapons, such as bows, spears, axes, daggers, etc., which were also used in hunting and could be made by any craftsman, a sword was made by a skilled specialist. This man was a swordsmith or a bladesmith. He would actually “smith” a blade. Through his talent and experience he worked by hand to carefully shape and then temper iron into finely crafted steel. He didn’t simply grind and polish a pre-made piece of cold metal with a few tools.  

The Swordsmith's Trade

A swordsmith’s goal was to produce a sturdy fighting blade hard enough to hold a fine edge or point, yet was also resilient (able to flex under strain but immediately after return true). He was far more than a “blacksmith,” who would hammer out or cast common tools from soft iron. A swordsmith typically had to know how to make steel---the harder form of iron that contained minute traces of carbon (usually from charcoal).  Steel, or carburized iron, enabled a metal blade to have a far sharper edge and to withstand much greater stress without breaking or staying bent.  

But first the swordsmith had to acquire good steel of the desired trait. The craft of smelting iron into steel was an exacting skill in itself and quality steel was a trade good. Source steel could sometimes be obtained in pre-forged ingots produced by others specialized in the task, saving the bladesmith the trouble and leaving him free to concentrate on shaping and tempering. Some smiths though would smelt their own raw ore. This part was also something of a mystery for their was no way in the past to know, let alone properly measure, the minute carbon content that under high heat seemed to magically transform iron into steel. A swordsmith had to base it all on his experience of what, as best he could tell, had worked well enough before.  

The real sweat came when he set about to work the ready metal into a blade. A swordsmith needed to carefully forge a blade.  He had to shape and mix metals of different known qualities, some softer for the core or sides, some harder for the edge and point. This was done essentially by “sandwiching” harder steel around softer iron so that the blade could flex under sudden impact but resist deformation.  

With the hammers and tongs that were his trade the swordsmith would work the proto-blade, moving the block of glowing metal back and forth between an anvil and a hot coal furnace fueled by a bellows. He needed just the right “color” of heat to keep the metal at just the right pliability. He would shape his metal while red-hot by slowly and repeatedly hammering and re-heating until it was the length, width, and thickness he wanted. He had to work the sides, edges, and tang into shape, none of which was entirely identical in its characteristics to the others.  

In order to be both strong and light for striking powerful cuts or thrusts against either hard or soft targets, different sword blades would require not just different lengths and widths but different cross-sections.  A swordsmith had to skillfully create these shapes, perhaps in some small way improving his design each time by refining his techniques and incorporating new ideas. This process was all much slower and far more exacting than so often depicted in movies with the pounding “k’tang!” of a hammer falling over and over on a glowing bar of metal (nor at any step would molten metal have been poured into molds in the making of a blade).  

When satisfied with the initial shape the swordsmith was far from finished. A finely crafted sword had to have just the right mix of good steel as well as just the right temper. Heat treatment was the final crucial step that gave the blade its strength and toughness. Heat-treating is really the whole process of quenching (or hardening) and tempering (or slightly softening). Tempering is really just the low-temperature re-heating of hardened yet still somewhat brittle steel (now called martinsite). In essence it’s the “relaxing” of the steel at a low temperature (as if baked in a kitchen oven). The higher the temperature or the longer a temperature is applied the more the metal’s structure is “relaxed,” thus making the blade tougher while somewhat softer. But when they were tempering historical swordsmiths did not know they were rearranging molecules of martinsite into a softer yet tougher pattern. They just knew they were making a better blade through careful use of heat over time.

Proper heat-treating was perhaps half the Art itself for there was no means in the distant past to gauge temperature (or even accurately record time). The very fact that the consistency and quality of source metals for swords were not standardized in any way would have ensured that each swordsmith would have had to follow his own instincts. A swordsmith had to judge it from his experience and skill as such heat-treatment could ruin a good blade or help save an inferior one. Many different means were developed to do this but all of them involved quenching it by soaking the heated blade in a liquid medium in order to lower the temperature. Quenching is really the fast cooling of the glowing hot blade in order to harden it. To ensure toughness and flexibility the blade would be quickly quenched in either oil or water. Quenching would come before any tempering. The combined shock of this followed by the slow re-heating to a low temperature essentially caused the metal’s attributes to change. But it is important to understand that the actual results of any heat-treatment would depend greatly upon the qualities of the different types of steel to which they were applied.

When the blade had cooled it was ready to be ground and sharpened (or “polished”). This is where its edge and point would be properly honed by hand to a desired degree for the type of fighting work it was expected to perform. By holding the cold blade against a series of large slowly turning stone grinding wheels of different grains, the blade’s final shape would be formed. It could then be given an edge with smaller stones or hard metal files. Sometimes an apprentice or specialist accomplished this job. A sword blade might also be inscribed or decorated, perhaps by the maker or another artisan (although some decoration might be applied earlier during forging). A swordsmith might sell his bare blades to others to then turn into ready swords or complete them himself.  

But once a blade was finished a suitable hilt would need to be attached. No matter how good a blade was it was only useable with a good hilt. This last step was often performed by another craftsman called a cutler. A hilt (pommel, grip, and guard) all had to fit firmly and be completely secure, usually being custom made for whatever blade it matched. Sometimes a handle might be made specifically for the hand of the owner. The handle of hard wood, horn, or bone had to be tight and securely graspable. Complex hilts of various bars were usually shaped of single solid pieces that were often worked cold rather than hot, but would be reheated when permanently attached. They were not spot-welded for such technology did not yet exist and would have proved too weak for the abuses of combat. When it at last had its hilt only then could the completed sword finally be tested and approved. Lastly, the whole weapon would be polished smooth, perhaps to a bright shine, before being oiled.  

Craft and Artistry

Within the historical craft of swordmaking there was always a certain degree of trial and error in the process as well as constant experiment to produce stronger and more effective weapons. Sword makers just didn’t know at the time they were adding certain percentages of trace elements. They didn’t know they were achieving exactly the right temperature threshold to fuse together different metals, align molecules, or crystallize steel. They had no "hardness scales" or measurable standards to go by. They simply judged by eye and hand the metal’s color and malleability for just the right moment at each step.  

Over time, as a swordsmith developed his method and acquired feedback on the performance of his product, he slowly perfected (and guarded) his craft ---even if some of its finer points were a mystery even to himself. Because the qualities and attributes that made up a good sword were not yet understood as a metallurgical science, the processes that produced a good sword blade were an art---and one with a certain mystique.  

A good maker or shop earned a reputation for reliability and consistency in their product.  Continuous feedback between swordsmiths who constructed the tools and swordsmen who used them was necessary for the latter to be satisfied and the former to make a living.  As swordsmen used their tools in combat and returned with suggestions or complaints newer and better models were tried. Like a modern auto-engineer designing high-performance racecars who needs expert drivers to test his designs to their limits, so too did the swordsmith rely on the swordsman. Over generations this vital circle of interaction between maker and user resulted in more and more sophisticated swords to meet the challenges of better armors and newer fighting techniques. All the while adding to the weapon’s ancient mystique.  

As with any craft swordsmiths ranged in their talent and expertise.  There were ones to meet all levels of demand and expense. Their trade, their business, was offering working tools that were a perishable product. Each sword they made was a custom piece, even as it might often match a known pattern or style and sometimes be produced quickly in large quantities. Yet, as a personal weapon a sword would be prized and cherished for there was always a certain awe to something forged from fire and earth into an object of deadly beauty.   

Ancient Art and Modern Science  

Throughout history, different swordsmiths of different cultures devised different ways of reliably achieving the result of a strong sword that was also sharp. The craft required the highest technology of the day but in the end it was an Art.  Whatever the method and technology and whatever the design, there were always certain aspects of swordsmithing indispensable to creating tough and resilient blades.  Yet even for the very same type of sword there was no uniform standardization among different smiths for the way in which it could be produced.

Historically, it was better for a sword to be too soft than too hard. A softer blade may certainly become bent, but it will still cut and it won’t snap. They did not have to be nearly as “springy” as many modern “replica” swords now give the impression. Steel springs certainly bend before breaking, but are not the best for the tough and resilient needs of long fighting blades. Medieval metalsmiths were certainly capable of making chisels and other tools with very hard edges from very hard steels. But again, as with springs, these properties alone were not those ideal for fighting blades. A blade of softer steel is harder to break because it will deform and bend instead, but this is not an indicator of its overall strength.  Impact strength is a fine balance between hardness and plasticity. Flexibility alone is a poor gauge of these properties as it does not guarantee impact strength in a blade and is less a factor of tempering than cross-sectional geometry.

We might imagine for a moment that if a sword could somehow be made of rubber it would have the ideal resilience to withstand impacts and bend as needed without ever breaking or deforming. Of course it wouldn’t cut or stab well at all. Similarly, if a sword could be made of glass it could have the sharpest of razor thin edges, but it would also shatter on impact and be useless. If the two qualities of rubber and glass could somehow be combined though, they would produce an ideal bladed weapon. In a sense then this is what real swords of fine steel have always tried to accomplish.  

We can note that during the Medieval and Renaissance periods an enormous variety of techniques for producing iron and steel as well as for methods of blade forging and heat-treatment were all in use. In Europe metal was produced using bloomery furnaces, blast furnaces, and crucible melting.  Differences were understood between various steels even if the science behind them was not. There was not a direct linear development of technologies or methods whereby earlier ones were quickly discarded as obsolete.  Several might be in use at any one time in the same region or even by the same maker. There is also evidence that many varied methods of differential tempering (i.e., softening one portion of the blade slightly more than another) were practiced and though each could generate different effects on the structure of a metal blade, they all aimed at similar results.  

Swordsmiths in northern Europe discovered a method of swordmaking (now called pattern-welding) whereby various pieces of iron and or steel rods of different hardness were combined by twisting and folding them together. This was used in Europe until the early Middle Ages. The ability to work metal in this way to create unique visible patterns on a blade’s surface may have been considered a sign of the metal’s quality and the smith’s skill. By the later Middle Ages swordsmiths were already constructing blades of more homogeneous steels by forge-welding together different bars of iron and steel (without the requirement for twisting rods). Others were of more homogeneous but differentially heat-treated steel.

Some blades were made of a laminate construction, produced by “folding” the steel over and over then forge welding at each fold (resulting in “layers”). In this lamination method to refine and make the steel more homogenous it was folded and forge welded. The swordsmith had to “fold” the bar of metal, resulting in a doubling of the “layers” and in the process blending the qualities of the various pieces of steel in the billet. The more the steel was folded the more homogeneous the metal in the blade became. The amount of folds would be determined by both the material and the final qualities the smith was looking for. One other way to combine smaller amounts of better steel into a larger useable billet was to create a piled structure where a few bars of refined steel were stacked together then welded as one and forged out into a blade shape without any further folding. But swords made by whatever means consisted essentially of careful combinations of softer iron with harder steel.

A good swordsmith would also have surely understood that just as different portions of a blade had different roles in guarding, binding, and striking they were not each uniform in their cross-section. To withstand the unique stress placed upon the shoulder of the blade (just below the cross) the tang especially had to have a different consistency than other portions. Whatever fighting techniques a particular blade might be designed for the swordsmith would be familiar with the specific qualities required.  

For a thrusting sword no quality was more important than stiffness. To effectively stab through various materials a thrusting blade would not require any of the flexibility so associated now with modern sporting, theatrical, and recreational swords. A hard rigid point was what mattered.  In the design of a cutting sword the primary concern was for the stress forces that would be applied against its edge. Structural strength perpendicular to the edge (that is, to the sides) though also important, was a secondary factor. Impact strength in a blade can be increased by plasticity (or ductility) but at the expense of hardness (stiffness and cutting ability).

In modern times swords have often been deemed of supposedly good quality when they can be slowly flexed repetitively, bent in a big circle, or continually plied back and forth then straightened again. However, these qualities reflect neither a good fighting weapon nor the concerns of actual historical swordsmen. A good sword blade had to be resilient and this was not a factor of either flexing or bendability. It was a matter of edge and point hardness combined with the need to repeatedly withstand sudden forceful impacts without breaking or bending—a factor of the metal’s plasticity versus its elasticity. Achieving this mix was a major part of the technical challenge involved.  

Rediscovering a Lost Craft  

Without the continued need for quality edged-weapons, and with fewer and fewer skilled swordsmen around to test and use them in earnest, the personal craft of swordsmithing by hand rather quickly faded.  Swords are not the same kind of tools as knives, which do not require the vigorous warding and parrying of other large blades or striking against assorted armors and other weapons. This is why modern craftsmen must reconstruct from our past the historical methods and techniques of swordmaking.  

While, by contrast, knife-making is nowadays alive and well as both art and science, the making of Medieval and Renaissance swords in an authentic manner is another story entirely. No traditional art of swordsmithing in the West survived the tumultuous centuries of changing military technologies (and fencing styles). Just as with their lost combat teachings, no surviving school or lineage of European swordsmithing preserved and passed on the old methods unchanged and unbroken. Because we came to no longer depend on swords for life and death encounters and they were not weapons we needed for war or self-defense any longer, the ancient art of swordsmithing in Europe eventually atrophied and fell into obscurity. Factory mass-production and industrialized machining largely replaced it at the very time it lost its usefulness.

Most swords today are produced as replicas or reproductions using a stock-removal process whereby a uniform bar of modern steel is shaped by machine or power-tools and then tempered to a certain outer hardness. For the most part, this is sufficient for costume weapons and even for purposes of most martial arts practice. But with few exceptions such weapons are generally deficient for more energetic training and serious test cutting. We can well imagine they would have proved deficient in historical combat.  

Thus, to accurately replicate the swords of old, modern swordmakers must closely examine and measure real historical swords in all the ways they can. They must note far more than their weight and general shape. They must understand the subtle changes in their cross-sectional geometry and in the angles of their edge at different portions that effect the select distribution of mass along the blade from tang to tip. Besides just knowing about the distinct metallic qualities that make up their inner and outer materials, they must also match the weapon’s original balance points and center of gravity so that it feels right when used correctly (this is why it is so crucial to accurately reproduce actual historical models rather than just try to create original new styles).  

Modern sword makers either can’t or don’t usually do this, and consumers suffer as a result. The cost of creating accurate historical swords by hand, combined with the effort and (now rare) skill involved, means that modern commercial sword manufacturers rely on a variety of work-saving measures to produce replica weapons (which is why they typically lack many of the essential handling characteristics of originals). Consumer ignorance also makes them prey to all manner of hype and deception by less reputable sword manufacturers.  

There is actually still a tremendous amount we just don't know yet about the craft and technology of how historical swords were really made. But through reconstruction and experimental archeology we are reaching a new level of knowledge, which previous generations of scholars, craftsmen, and historical fencing practitioners did not have. With each year and each new discovery, our understanding advances. Such effort involves not constructing swords to the best of modern technology and metallurgical science, but making them according to the truest historical methods—and then testing them properly.  

Though we now have manufacturing methods that can create all manner of steel with all manner of exact attributes, the craft of making a fine sword---the art of swordsmithing---is still something of a mystery.

The preceding was excerpted from a forthcoming book on Renaissance swords. No part may be reproduced without permission.
Copyright 2006 by John Clements.
Appreciation to Paul Champagne and Dan Maragni in the preparation of this piece. 05/06

See Also: Youth Page Q&A:"Why are there so many kinds of swords?"

 
 

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