What are Critical Characteristics of Historical Swords?

By Daniel Maragni
ARMA Advisor & Master Bladesmith

Some aspects of ancient sword design:

1. Edge - the edge is in many ways the most important part of the sword. This is the interface between the blade and the target and must be properly shaped and presented to maximize the effects of the cut. If the edge is shaped incorrectly for the target, too thick or thin depending on hard or soft targets, it will either not "bite" or it will fail by either chipping or collapsing on contact. Presentation of the edge to the target is a factor of skill in cutting and the way the blade and hilt orientate the edge.

2. Cross section and taper - cutting swords tend to taper quite a bit by the middle of the blade (about 50% of the blade thickness about 50% down the length of the blade) and then the taper flattens out as it approaches the point. Swords with this taper will have a certain amount of "sag" when held out with the flat of the blade parallel to the floor, the blades will also be a bit "whippy" when waved around. For some reason "saggy" and "whippy" seem to be seen as flaws in modern replica blades.

3. Weight and Balance - you cannot get something for nothing in the real world. If you want a sword to hit hard and cut deeply it has to have the mass and balance to carry it through. Earlier swords (Celtic, Roman, Migration) tended to be lighter than swords of the Viking Age and later when armor improved and more reach was necessary for warriors on horseback. Earlier swords tended to have thinner, soft target cutting blades and wooden hilts (or combinations of wood with some metal). By the late Viking Age sword blades are thicker and longer and have all metal guards and pommels, greatly increasing their weight and strength. Balance in a cutting sword tends towards the point end of the blade, and so tend to feel very heavy in the hand but hit very hard. Remember, our weak and puny civilized muscles are nothing compared to the ancient warriors who started training with weapons at an early age (I love swordsmith Paul Champagne's comment to someone who said that a particular sword was too heavy..."Train more." he replied.)

4. Tang shape - in 1998, sword collector and researcher Dr. Lee Jones and I went through several museums in Switzerland, Germany and England and I spent most of my time looking at tangs. Cutting swords universally have wide and thick tangs [unlike most modern replicas] with a minimum of "shoulder" where the tang meets the blade. If the tang is not strong the sword will not work.

5. Hilt - the hilt is where "the rubber meets the road", the critical interface between the swordsman and the sword. If the hilt is poorly designed and constructed it will be difficult, if not impossible, to use the sword efficiently. The hilt should give the hand the correct orientation to present the edge properly, should keep the hilt in the hand even when striking as hard as possible, should protect the hand from the shock of the strike and should have the structural integrity to withstand impacts against even hard targets.

Celtic Culture and the Sword - the Celts were the premier ironworkers and bladesmiths of the ancient world. See Pleiner's book The Celtic Sword to get an idea of how sophisticated their swords were from both a functional design and metallurgical perspective (they made thrusting and cutting swords, laminated blades, and heat treatment as early as 400 BC). They were a culture of warriors who made and used swords in some of the toughest purely edged weapon campaigns for over 500 years and then were more or less absorbed by the Romans and fought with them for an additional 400 years.

A Good Place to Start Bladesmithing - the best way to start is to take a class in one of the many craft schools around the country, just about every one offers at least one bladesmithing class per summer. Also Jim Hrisoulas books on bladesmithing are quite good- The Complete Bladesmith: Forging Your Way to Perfection, and The Master Bladesmith: Advanced Studies in Steel, (plus also the one on pattern welding which I cannot find the reference for, it is lost somewhere in my piles of books). These are good ways to be exposed to techniques of blade shaping but the most important aspect of making blades is knowing what shape to make them and this knowledge comes from the study of ancient and ethnographic swords and knives and from practical, physical testing.

Dan Maragni is a longtime professional bladesmith and swordsmith, a consultant to the cutlery industry, member of the New England Bladesmith's Guild, and a researcher of historical metallurgy. He has traveled the world studying blade technology and is the president of Dikon Swords.

November, 2002


See Also: Hey Mister ...is that sword real?

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