To begin with, a true sword must be sharp. Obvious? Maybe…But look around and you will see that most of the products masquerading as swords are not sharp. True swords are designed for combat and must function as weapons. They must cut through leather jerkins, chain mail, helms, wood shields, pole arm hafts, and more.
The ill-informed will often claim that true swords were never intended to be sharp. (These, of course, are usually the same people peddling steel blunts – or those who have been influenced by them.) They are obviously not students of history. Archeological evidence from ancient battle sites shows men felled by single blows that cleaved through shoulder blade, ribs and spine. Or that took off two legs with one sweep of a blade. Rest assured that the swords that inflicted these wounds were extremely sharp.
Since swords must stay sharp through the abuse of combat, steel hardness is an important sword quality. Steel hardness determines how well a sword takes and holds an edge. A hardness less than RC 55 is unsuitable for swords, yet many “swords” are made of steels that fall far short of this mark.* These faux swords lack the hardness required to cleave through armor.
*Damascus blades, which are made of segregated steels, will have layers of varying hardness when tested. These layers give Damascus blades superior hardness and toughness compared to other sword steels.
A true sword is also tough enough to absorb the impact of repeated blows. This toughness is related to a sword’s ability to flex and return to true; under extreme duress, it should bend and not break.
But steel toughness and hardness are inversely proportional. The harder the steel, the more brittle it is. The more flexible a steel, the softer it is. This is true for all uniform steels. True swords must balance these two properties.
Our Bright Knights are made from S7 steel, a uniform steel and one of the toughest of the available high-hardness commercial steels. S7 is specifically designed to withstand repeated high impacts. Angel Sword has been making Bright Knights for almost 10 years. Today, a few thousand swords later, we have only seen a few of our blades broken. We do see four or five swords each year with cracked grips, but so far we have not found a way to grow harder trees. (And in all these cases, our swords are covered by our lifetime guarantee.)
A superior way to balance hardness and toughness is through steel with non-uniform properties. This can be achieved through differential hardening, differential tempering, differential density, differential carburization, or through mechanical or crystalline Damascus techniques. Metallurgy is science, but it is also art, a dance where many techniques may be used to obtain the desired result.
Differential Hardening | This technique is seen on traditional Japanese swords, but also can be applied to other designs. It is based on cooling the edge more rapidly than the spine, thus giving the edge a higher hardness. Differential hardening can be accomplished by quenching just the edge; or by using clay to insulate and retain heat in the spine while quenching the whole piece.
Differential Tempering | Applying a lower level of heat to steel removes some of its hardness, giving it added flexibility and toughness. The amount of flexibility or toughness in different parts of the blade can be controlled through differential tempering.
Differential Density | Some smiths believe in this technique, while others just as strongly claim that is has no basis or value. In any case, the concept is that the edge of a blade can be packed more densely than the body through hammer blows, thus giving it additional strength and hardness.
Differential Carburization | This takes advantage of the fact that every flame has three zones – oxygen rich, neutral and carbon rich – and that, depending on where it is in a flame, steel may either lose or gain carbon at the same rate, to a depth of about 1/8 inch per hour. Used properly, a smith can add carbon to a blade’s edge to increase hardness while retaining the spine’s flexibility. Unfortunately decarburization, the result of inadequate knowledge or training, is a frequent problem that adversely affects the quality of many blades.
Mechanical Damascus | This technique combines two or more dissimilar irons or steels through forge welding and then folding or twisting the resulting steel to produce the characteristic Damascus pattern. This is one of the oldest ways of converting iron to steel.
San Mai | A “steel sandwich” where a central layer of hard steel has one or two outer layers of tougher steel. Roman short swords were frequently made this way, as are many Swedish knives.
Crystalline Damascus | True Damascus steel, sometimes known as wootz or bulat steel, is not folded steel. Instead, Crystalline Damascus achieves its characteristics through the segregation of a single steel into multiple steels with different carbon contents, crystalline structures and alloy levels. The making of this steel was long considered a lost art, but today a handful of smiths have rediscovered techniques for producing true crystalline Damascus steel.
Most smiths are happy to master even one of these techniques, which they then apply to all their work while criticizing other methods. But these techniques are not mutually exclusive. To the contrary, they can and should be used together to meet the desires of the smith.
Weight and balance will also differentiate a real sword from a mere pretender. True swords are easy to use. They feel light in the hand and allow fluid movements when wielded. A sword that is heavy and awkward to wield will not serve its master well in combat.
Historical swords are finely balanced weapons. For instance, one of the rare antique swords in the Angel Sword collection is a 10th century Viking sword, probably one of the finest examples in existence. (Photo at bottom right.)
This double-edged sword has a blade length of 32 ¾ inches, and is 38 inches overall. The blade width is 1¾ inch. It weighs just 2 pounds 6 ounces, with a point of balance (POB) 4 ¼ inches from the guard.
An antique Napoleonic Hussar’s Saber in the Angel Sword collection has an overall length of 37 ¼ inches, weight of 2 lbs., and a balance point approximately 4 ½ inches from the guard.
The POB is an important measurement because it indicates how heavy the blade feels in the hand, and how much strain is placed on the wrist when using the sword. The closer the POB is to the guard, the lighter and more responsive the blade will feel.
For comparison, a typical Angel Sword rapier weighs 2 ½ – 3 pounds and has a POB around 2 ½ – 2 ¾ inches from the guard.
POB is an important consideration, but it is only one of many factors that defines a true sword. Different fighting styles and techniques require different sword characteristics. The most important thing to remember is that a true sword is a functional weapon and will handle like one.
Finally, fit and finish are valid considerations when buying a sword, but are not really factors in determining whether a sword is real or just a poor imitation. There are many other factors to take into account when shopping for a sword as well, but that is another story…