By Quinn P.
A common misconception is that the sword was a crude weapon that was unbearably heavy and clumsy, but this isn’t true. It was actually a very fine weapon, balanced just right so that it could be easily wielded. The proportions of its different components were created not only to be functional, but to also give the sword beauty (Oakeshott, sword 10 – 11). The sword greatly influenced medieval society. This is evident by the important role it played in sacred ceremonies, such as the dubbing of a knight, and in many medieval monuments and songs (Boos 44 – 47). The sword is an iconic symbol of the Middle Ages, skillfully crafted to be used both as a mighty weapon and a symbol of power.
The basic parts of the sword are the blade and the hilt. The blade is the main part of the sword that runs from the tip of the sword to underneath the sword’s hilt. It has several sections. The edge of the blade is the part that does the slicing. A sword can have one, two, and sometimes three edges. The tip of the blade is used to stab and pierce semi-strong armor. The back is the part of the blade that is opposite to the edge. If the sword has more than one edge, it doesn’t have a back. The flat is the non-striking part of the blade. The fuller, also known as the blood groove or gutter, is a groove indented in the flat of the blade to reduce weight and to increase the blade’s rigidity. The ricasso is an unsharpened part of the blade near the guard. It is mostly used in larger swords to give space for another hand to grip the sword. The tang is the part of the blade that fits inside of the hilt (Tyson). A full tang runs through the entire hilt, while a half tang only runs partially through the hilt (Boos 29).
The hilt consists of three parts: the guard, the grip, and the pommel. The guard is the part of the sword that prevents another sword blade or shield from slipping down onto the wielder’s hands, cutting or crushing them. Medieval European swords generally had a wide cross-shaped guard called a cruciform. As hilts evolved, some had a ring attached to the front of the cruciform to protect a finger when it was placed on top of the guard (Boos 28).
The grip is the handle of the sword. Depending on the sword, the grip can range in length from just enough room for a hand, to more than enough room for two hands. It was commonly made with either fine wood, ivory, wrapped metal wire, leather, fabric, or a combination of these materials. Samurai swords would often be fitted with intricate grips (Boos 52).
The pommel gives the sword its balance. It is very important that the sword is properly balanced because it greatly affects the sword’s handling. As Ewart Oakeshott says in the book, A Knight and his Weapons, “Without an adequate pommel, a sword is as unbalanced as a conventionally designed airplane would be without a tailplane, and as unmanageable as the same aircraft would be if it had no rudder” (57). Pommel designs range from a round knob on the end of the sword to a very intricate and beautiful masterpiece decorated with precious metals and gems.
The desired properties of swords change depending on the sword’s function. Some say that the ideal sword should be able to flex repeatedly, or be bent into a circle and snap back to its original shape, while others prefer a stiffer blade. In most cases, blacksmiths wanted their swords to have a hard tip and edges to withstand repeated impacts (Clements). Most swords were light and well balanced, usually weighing between two to three pounds, except for a few large two-handers which could weigh over six pounds. Even though two or three pounds may seem like a lot to wield nowadays, the warriors and knights of medieval times trained with the sword and other weapons since they were young (Oakeshott, Sword 10-12). Blacksmiths tried to make their swords hard, so that their swords would keep an edge and resist bending. However, it was better to make a sword too soft than to make it too hard; even though a soft sword could bend and dent, it was better than if it shattered in battle (Clements).
There is a wide variety of swords created for different purposes. People in modern times have invented many different ways of classifying them. Here are some common classifications of medieval European swords: The short sword or arming sword is a one-handed light sword that was often used with a shield. The long sword, bastard sword, and hand-and-a-half sword are all fairly similar. They are weapons that could be used effectively with either one or two hands. They measure about 40 to 50 in. long from tip to pommel. Knights favored this weapon because they could use it with a shield, or wield it using both hands to increase their attack force (Oakeshott, Knight 61 – 62). The line separating the bastard sword from the long sword and hand-and-a-half sword is a bit fuzzy, but it seems that the bastard sword is a bit bulkier than the other two. The two handed sword is a heavier sword, usually weighing three pounds or more. A particularly heavy type of two handed sword called a Zweihander sometimes weighed more than six pounds (Boos 32 – 35).
The sword was the weapon of choice for many warriors and knights. Many methods of fighting were created for the sword. Medieval sword fighting was much different from what you see in the movies. The fights usually ended quickly, often with one opponent on the ground so that the enemy could put his weight into driving his sword through his opponent’s armor. Frequently, battles consisted of wrestling as well as unusual attacks that a modern person would not expect, such as a knight grabbing his sword blade in both his gloved hands and swinging it like a club (Reclaiming the Blade). In fact, old manuscripts depict knights fighting with swords that have spiked pommels, which would increase the damage inflicted when used as a club (Boos 40).
The greatest feared mercenaries of Europe during the late medieval and Renaissance ages were the Lansknechts. They were highly paid warriors who fought in almost every continental war between the late 1400s to the late 1600s. The word Landsknecht means double mercenary because they were paid twice as much as a normal soldier. Many Lansknechts fought with pikes or halberds, but the Landsknecht mercenary known as a Doppelsoldner, wielded the mighty Zweihander. Many Zweihanders had undulating blades used for manipulating and maneuvering the shaft of an enemy’s polearm. The Zweihander was used by a Doppelsoldner to cut a path through ranks of the enemy so that the pikemen could come in and follow up his attacks. When the enemy got too close for a Doppelsoldner to use his Zweihander, he pulled out a short sword with an S-shaped guard called a Katzbalger, which means cat gutter (Boos 32-35).
In Norse literature, there is evidence of swords being used for many generations (Oakeshott, Sword 16). The Vikings who fought with swords usually fought with a shield, using the sword to attack and the shield to block blows. A Viking would only block with his sword at the utmost need because a direct clash between the weapons could cause damage to both. Many stories tell about a special Viking sword move called slipping. It involved a snap of the wrist, a change of grip, then letting the grip shoot through their hand but catching it by the pommel at the last second. This would increase the warrior’s striking range by a few inches (Boos 10).
The Forging Process
Many people believe that swords were always made from metal, but the first swords were made out of wood. By 5000 B.C., copper was being forged, and iron smelting appeared by the time of Christ (Cohen 105). Even before iron smelting was discovered, there is evidence of ancient peoples using crystalline iron that came from meteorites. In many prehistoric cultures, the word iron meant hard rock or substance from heaven (“The Riddle of Steel”). Copper, bronze, and iron were too soft to make very effective swords because they wouldn’t keep an edge long, and they could easily bend. During battle, Gallic warriors had to periodically move out of combat to straighten their soft iron swords (Cohen 105). Crude steel swords were first forged in ancient Egypt at around 900 B.C. (“The Riddle of Steel”). European medieval swords were based on old Celtic swords and Viking swords from the later part of the Migration Period.
The anvil is a very important tool that blacksmiths used. It was where they placed the steel when hammering, and it had several other uses as well. The base is the bulk of the anvil. It often has holes drilled through the bottom to secure the anvil to the ground. The face is where most of the shaping of the steel happens. It is very hard and smooth, and it has rounded edges so that it does not gouge the steel. The pad is a small, flat area of the anvil between the face and the horn. It is used for chisel work so that the blacksmith does not scar the face. The horn is the part of the anvil that tapers to a rounded tip. It is used for curving and bending steel. The hardy hole is a square socket in the anvil’s face that stores the shaping tools. The pritchel hole is a round hole in the anvil’s face that lets a punch, drift, or drill go down into the anvil (Tyson).
Blacksmiths used a large assortment of tools when forging a sword. A very important type of tool they used was the hammer. It was an extension of the blacksmith’s arm. The hammer came in many shapes and sizes, from small hammers to heavy sledge hammers. Most forging hammers had crowned heads, which were slightly rounded to prevent making sharp indentations in the steel. The sledge hammer typically weighed up to twenty pounds, often requiring two people to use it. One person held the sword on the anvil, while the other swung the hammer. Its main purpose was for heavy-duty shaping. The single jack is a smaller version of the sledge hammer. One person could use it. The set hammer and flatter are both hammers that have large, flat heads. The set hammer is used to make squared corners and flat edges, and the flatter is used to flatten steel. Peen hammers have a crowned head on one side and a ball or wedge on the other side. Peen hammers are used for most of the shaping of the steel (Tyson).
Hammers are just some of the tools that blacksmiths used. In order to make a good sword, they needed a variety of other tools. Tongs are used for holding and moving hot steel. The forge is a super-hot oven used to heat the steel. The quench tank is a large metal container filled with oil or water. It is used to cool down steel quickly to harden it. The slack tub is a large barrel filled with water used for cooling down steel and tools. Files are used for smoothing edges and burrs. Vises are used to hold pieces in a fixed position. Punches poke holes into steel. Drifts expand holes. The grinder is used for basic shaping and pre-polishing the sword. The buffer polishes the completed blade (Tyson).
There is also a set of shaping tools called the hardies. They are the tools that are stored in the hardy hole. One of the tools is called a bick. It looks like a small version of the anvil horn. Like the horn, it is used for curving and bending steel. Another tool is called a fuller. It is used to spread out steel by pushing a groove into the steel. The groove on either side of a sword blade is named after the fuller. The third tool is called a swag. It is used to force steel into a certain shape (Tyson).
Contrary to what is seen in some movies, forging a sword is a very complex process. During certain parts of the forging process, the blacksmith has to partially rely on instinct (Reclaiming the Blade). But before a blacksmith can start forging a sword, he needs to select the proper materials to have the intended end result. Depending on how much carbon is in the steel, and the concentration of other alloying elements, the blacksmith can control the properties of his sword. The more carbon in the steel, the harder it will be (Tyson).
Sword forging has not changed too much since the medieval times, although some new equipment has been created such as the electric belt grinder. Once the steel is selected, the blacksmith heats the steel to a temperature that makes it red hot, about 1200 to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. If it is below 1200 degrees, the steel could shatter while forging, and for most steels, it shouldn’t be heated above 1800 degrees. Once the steel is heated, the blacksmith draws out the steel, which is increasing the length of the steel while decreasing its thickness. He can draw out the sword unevenly to curve the blade (Tyson). After that, the blacksmith tapers the blade. This is when the blacksmith defines the blade’s basic shape. He hammers at an angle, starting at the end, and working down the blade to create the tip and tang. Six to eight inches of the blade is heated at a time, flipping the blade over often so that the it is evenly worked on both sides (Tyson).
At certain points during the forging process, the blacksmith normalizes the steel. Normalizing is the process used to relieve the stress in the steel and smooth out its crystalline structure. If the sword is not normalized, it would likely shatter or crack. The blacksmith normalizes the steel by heating it to a point at which it will austenitize (the carbon atoms will start to mix with the iron atoms). Then the blacksmith lets the steel cool slowly (Tyson).
After the blade’s shape is finished, it needs to be made soft enough to grind and cut. This is accomplished by annealing. The blade is heated to the point at which it will austenitize again, then it is placed into an insulated container so that it cools very slowly. Allowing it cool slowly lets the carbon atoms in the steel settle in places that will not increase the steel’s hardness, making it very soft (Tyson).
After annealing and doing fine work on the blade such as grinding at the edges and engraving the blade, the steel is too soft to use in battle. To fix this problem, the blacksmith will quench the blade. The blade is heated to make it austenitize, and then it is dipped in the quench tank, either filled with water, oil, or brine. This causes the steel to cool quickly, trapping the carbon atoms in-between the iron atoms, making it a lot harder (Tyson).
Now the blade is hard enough, but it is too brittle. So the blacksmith tempers the blade, heating the blade bellow the austenitization point and quenching it. This softens the steel a bit, making it a lot less brittle. A blacksmith may temper a blade several times to achieve the outcome he wants. A blade can also be tempered unevenly to make harder and softer regions to maximize the blade’s hardness while keeping it soft enough so that it does not shatter (Tyson).
After polishing the blade, all that needs to be done is to make the grip, guard, and pommel. These were often created by other craftsmen because just forging the blade itself took great experience and skill. There were also other people who created scabbards and belts for the swords. Going through all of these processes, a sword could take several years to make (Dempsey).
In the Middle Ages, the sword became a symbol of power and authority. “The sword was taken up by many a king – sometimes far abroad in conquest or crusade, sometimes at home – as the last defense of a besieged castle. The sword lives on in medieval monuments and songs as proof that it was the defining weapon of this era” (Boos 44). A monarch was thought to wield divine authority with his sword, a touch of a blade would dub someone a knight, and kissing the king’s sword was the most solemn oath. A masterfully crafted sword was thought to have its own spirit. A possessor of one would handle it with respect, often bestowing a name upon it. If properly trained for war, and if the spirit of the sword was in harmony with its owner, he was thought to be almost unbeatable in a fight. If a king fell in battle, his sword was usually buried with him, sometimes recovered after laying in rest for centuries.
Swords have lost much of their importance in modern times, especially in warfare, although their impact on society is shown by the many legends and popular movies and books where the sword plays a vital role. Sports such as Olympic Fencing and historical reenactments continue the legacy of the sword. There are also people who still forge swords the medieval way. People have also created fairly historically accurate styles of sword fighting based on sources such as medieval texts created by master swordsmen (Reclaiming the Blade).
The sword is a weapon of both beauty and power, having the ability to pierce mail armor and cut straight through unarmored soldiers. It was created using a highly complex forging method that took years and much skill to learn. Unlike popular belief, swords aren’t crude, extremely heavy weapons that took an unbelievably strong person to wield; most one handed and hand-and-a-half swords weighed two to three pounds (Oakeshott, Sword 11 – 12). Not only did the sword greatly affect The Middle Ages, but also has a lasting impression on society today. The sword lives on in legends such as King Arthur and popular movies and books such as The Lord of the Rings. “The Sword of Elendil was forged anew by Elvish smiths, and on its blade was traced a device of seven stars set between the crescent Moon and rayed Sun, and about them was written many runes; for Aragorn son of Arathorn was going to war upon the marches of Mordor.” (Tolkien 269).
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Clements, John. “How Were Swords Really Made?”. Arma – The Association for Renaissance Martial Arts. Arma, 1999. Web. 7 Nov. 2013.
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Dempsey, Jock. “Generation X Sword Making or POOF! You’re a Swordsmith”. Anvilfire.com. n.p. n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2013.
Oakeshott, Ewart. A Knight and His Weapons – Second Edition. Chester Springs, Pennsylvania:
Dufour Editions, 1997. Print.
—. The Sword in the Age of Chivalry. Rochester, NY: The Boydell Press, 1997. Print.
Reclaiming the Blade. Dir. Daniel McNicoll. Writ. Daniel McNicoll. Galata Films, 2009. Documentary, DVD.
“The Riddle of Steel”. The Barbarian Keep – The Conan and Robert E. Howard Website. n.p. n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. Print.
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