For several thousand years, swords were the primary personal weapon of soldiers throughout the world. It’s the combination of their apparent simplicity and lethal power that make them a source of fascination up through the present. Even a futuristic fantasy movie franchise like Star Wars incorporates a high-tech lightsabre in its story lines. Because most people get their impressions of swords from the movies, certain misconceptions have developed. As the following five bits of information show, the reality can be even more interesting than the popular image.
Holding the Edge
A combination of movie choreography and the sport of fencing give people a distorted view of how sword fights actually occurred. Relying on blade-less weapons called foils, fencing uses moves that would be disastrous if used with bladed weapons since repeatedly striking the edges of standard swords together would quickly dull them. In actual sword fights, the weapon was reserved for inflicting wounds on the opponent while either the flat side of the sword or a secondary device like a shield, dagger, small shield called a buckle, or an armored glove called a gauntlet was used to deflect blows from an opponent’s sword.
The first known metal used to make swords was bronze. An alloy of copper and tin, this metal was relatively easy to smelt because of the low melting points of the two components. The oldest sword on record is a bronze object found in Turkey that dates back to 3300 B.C. After several centuries as the preferred metal for swords, bronze was replaced by iron around 1200 B.C. This metal was actually softer than bronze and required more heat to produce, but iron ore was much easier to find than deposits of tin.
Shortly after people learned how to produce iron, they discovered that when iron absorbed small amounts of carbon, it became much harder and more rigid. Ideally, this substance, steel, should be roughly 2% carbon to have high strength without being too brittle. Experiments have been conducted over the centuries, but after over 3,000 years, steel remains the superior material for swords.
Made in India
As far back as 500 B.C., Wootz steel from India gained a reputation from the Roman Empire to China as the best sword steel in the world due to its ability to hold an edge after rigorous use. In Medieval Europe, it was imported through the Near East and became known as Damascus steel. Recently, it was discovered that the quality of this type of steel was the result of carbon nanotubes in the metal.
Another popular image is that of the swordsmith working alone to create the entire object. In reality, even the swordsmith had a few assistants for chores like pounding the heated metal blank into a blade. Beyond this, the other components like the handle, guard, and pommel, a feature at the end of the handle that held the entire handle assembly called the hilt together, were constructed by other specialists.