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Chad Arnow
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PostPosted: Tue 26 Sep, 2006 3:16 pm    Post subject: Use of brass for hilts in the Middle Ages/Renaissance         Reply with quote

In online communities like this one, we often hear disparaging remarks about the use of brass for hilts. However, we know from a few surviving examples of swords and daggers that it was indeed used. Intrigued by this new offering from MRL, which used brass instead of steel like the original, I decided to look around and see what else I could find.

I pretty easily found two rondel daggers that use brass (sometimes called latten) in their hilts. I'm sure there are more examples of various types of weapons.

So, why does brass have a bad reputation? Why is it so despised? Some of this likely comes from the use of very soft brass in cheap, poorly constructed reproductions. Our ancestors obviously used it, though. As Sean noted in the thread lined above, brass-hilted swords gave great service to many soldiers of the 18th and 19th centuries, and we have examples from earlier, like these daggers, that show brass used on what appear to have been battlefield weapons. It was used for gun barrels in plenty of cases as well. It can't have been as weak or soft as people allege, or I doubt it would be used.

Thoughts?

I'd also love to see more examples that use brass for hilt parts.



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From a Sotheby's Catalogue

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From the 2001 Peter Finer Catalogue

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PostPosted: Tue 26 Sep, 2006 3:38 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I don't like brass simply because I don't like, that's just a personal preference. I don't mind bronze in knives but I don't like yellow non-ferrous metals as sword components. I don't think rondel daggers featuring yellow metal hilt components can be used as any kind of benchmark for medieval and renaissance weapons as a whole.

While there are a few medieval swords that feature bronze and even copper guards they are in the stark minority. Given the number of surviving examples iron seems to have been the standard and for good reason. Swords with brass-like hilt components start to surface enmasse as the sword gradually ceases to be a frontline or primary weapon. As swords become general issue we see brass used as a common hilt material. To me this indicates the sword is losing priority as a weapon, becoming an general issue piece of kit and thus less care is taken in its materials.

I don't see a strong correlation to daggers from the medieval period and their larger sword brothers. Nor do I see a strong comparison between medieval swords and mass-issue colonial era swords. All had different missions and were made with different priorities.
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Chad Arnow
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PostPosted: Tue 26 Sep, 2006 3:53 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Patrick Kelly wrote:
I don't think rondel daggers featuring yellow metal hilt components can be used as any kind of benchmark for medieval and renaissance weapons as a whole.



I'm pretty sure I never said two examples meant it was common or popular or representative of the era. Happy However brass-hilted examples did exist and the mere presence of brass doesn't make a piece ahistorical, which is what I've heard implied or directly stated a number of times by a number of people.

Quote:
I don't see a strong correlation to daggers from the medieval period and their larger sword brothers. Nor do I see a strong comparison between medieval swords and mass-issue colonial era swords. All had different missions and were made with different priorities.


Hmmm... The correlation is that people trusted their lives to their weapons, regardless of the era or situation. The basic priorities and missions of those items were indeed common: harm others, defend wielder, repeat as needed. The details of the situations in which they were used differed, which would change some of the design parameters of the weapon. At the end of the day, though, swords, daggers, and firearms were relied on to kill opponents and keep the wielder from being killed no matter when they were created or used.

If brass were as weak as people often claim it is, it wouldn't have been suitable for use. Is brass as good as steel in every circumstance? Of course not, or it would have been as popular as steel, like you say. However, we can't automatically dismiss every brass-hilted item on the basis of a perceived lack of functionality.

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PostPosted: Tue 26 Sep, 2006 5:56 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

My dislike for brass is completely aesthetic in nature. I find it gaudy.
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PostPosted: Tue 26 Sep, 2006 7:01 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I guess it depend on the mechanical qualities of brass: If soft it will be deeply nicked by hard contact with steel blades but still be thick enough to still be protective if we are talking about a guard. A real negative would be failure if it was also very brittle and would shatter on impact ? I could be wrong, but I think being too soft is more probable than brittle: I guess that would depend on alloy ?

One thing I don't like is the way brass will vert de gris if keep in contact with leather for too long: I know I shouldn't keep knives in their leather sheaths but I sometimes do. Oh, well a little sanding restores the finish or the pitting gives character at least Razz Laughing Out Loud

I do like the colour of bronze better. The colour of brass is not bad if it has a nice patina. Glossy and " YUCK " lacquered brass is really the what I can agree is gaudy and ugly: Now only solid gold deserves that look ! Wink

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Chad Arnow
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PostPosted: Tue 26 Sep, 2006 7:28 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

As with any compound/alloy, the characteristics will vary with the make-up, I'd guess. Not every steel alloy makes a good blade. I'd imagine that not every brass alloy would make good hilt fittings. To assume that all brass is copper and zinc (and nothing else) would be like assuming that all steel is just iron and carbon (and nothing else). For steel, we know that's not true. There are trace elements that give and take away desirable characteristics in varying amounts.

I'd love to see data on the strength of mild steel alloys vs. bronze alloys vs. brass alloys.

If the anti-brass sentiments stem solely from aesthetic preference, I have no issue with that. Happy We each have our own aesthetic. It's interesting to me, though, that most people tolerate bronze, but not brass. Sometimes they're pretty similar. I've seen several different bronze alloys in repros and some are pretty yellow. The Sovereign's bronze is pretty yellow, as is my A&A dagger's fittings. My ArmArt's bronze is more reddish, and the pommel of the DT2140 I used to own was more red still.



Tarnished




More and more, I find I prefer tarnished to bright, though there is an attractiveness sometimes to the bling-bling of shiny surfaces. Happy

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PostPosted: Tue 26 Sep, 2006 7:44 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Chad Arnow wrote:
I'm pretty sure I never said two examples meant it was common or popular or representative of the era.


I was simply using the examples you gave to illustrate a broader statement.

Quote:
However brass-hilted examples did exist[/quote


Did they? You yourself have corrected me on several occasions by pointing out that we aren't exactly sure of the metallurgical composition of latten, except that it's a material similar to brass. So I don't think we should forget that now by making a claim that the presence of brass in a given design isn't neccessarily inaccurate. There's the one sword in the Met with a copper guard but that may be an exception to the rule rather than a standard. I don't think we can use 18th-19th century examples as a yardstick for the medieval period as swords of those different eras were manufactured with different priorities in mind. Read accounts from these later periods and you'll find that swords are almost something of an afterthought. Often left with the baggage, only good for hitching posts, etc. I'm only sticking with the medieval/renaissance era due to the examples you posted.

Quote:
Hmmm... The correlation is that people trusted their lives to their weapons, regardless of the era or situation.


Very true. However, not all weapons are created equal and not all of them receive the same priority. You're using a very broad base of weapons and eras to make your point. That point is just as faceted as "what is a rapier?", etc. Not all weapons experience the same frequency of use or the same stresses. Yellow metal is perfectly fine for weapons like the examples you've used but less good for primary weapons that will see more frequent use, such as a sword. The swords of the 18th-19th centuries were becoming something of an afterthought. Brass was used in these eras because it was plentiful and cheaper for mass production. Something like a rondel possesses fairly small and chunky hilt components, ie. the rondels. It has none of the longer guard components of a sword and will not experience the same kind of abuse.

Quote:
The basic priorities and missions of those items were indeed common: harm others, defend wielder, repeat as needed. The details of the situations in which they were used differed, which would change some of the design parameters of the weapon. At the end of the day, though, swords, daggers, and firearms were relied on to kill opponents and keep the wielder from being killed no matter when they were created or used.


That's a pretty broad and sweeping statement that really over generalizes the issue. Priorities and missions of these weapons are common only in the broadest sense. I make my living with weapons every day. They'll all kill but they'll do it more or less effeciently in different circumstances. You don't use your trombone to play the part designated for the bassoon do you? Different materials for different missions.

Quote:
If brass were as weak as people often claim it is, it wouldn't have been suitable for use.


I think people are down on brass primarily because superior materials are more easily available. Post your question on a forum like ARMA or AEMMA, where people use their sword for something other than slaying pool noodles and water bottles and I think you'll find some pretty strong opinions based on hands-on experience, not from a love of yellow metal. Brass simply doesn't hold up as well or as long as steel and people want the most for their money. Brass is an inferior metal to steel for these uses and the better option can be had at no extra charge. I really think that's the modern mindset. That and many people simply think it's ugly. I like certain types of bronze for hilt components on some things myself, because it patinates and ages much more differently than brass.

Quote:
Is brass as good as steel in every circumstance? Of course not,


A good point that in part answers your own question.

Quote:
However, we can't automatically dismiss every brass-hilted item on the basis of a perceived lack of functionality.


I think you're right, but nor can we blanketly defend the use of the material based upon our personal preferences. I don't think we can make a blanket statement claiming that it's accurate without first discussing the context in which it's used, which is more varied than simply stating it was used for weapons and therefore accurate. You've mentioned swords from a wide range of eras as well as a cannon for comparison. I think the issue should be further defined.

In the end I think the only definitive things we can say is that non-ferrous yellow metals were used for hilt materials in ages past but were not the best materials for the job, and that modern buyers often choose steel because they find it both stronger and more aesthetically pleasing.


Last edited by Patrick Kelly on Tue 26 Sep, 2006 8:37 pm; edited 3 times in total
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PostPosted: Tue 26 Sep, 2006 7:51 pm    Post subject: Brass Cannon....?         Reply with quote

I really have to agree on the aesthetics issue for the most part although where historically accurate, I don't see a problem with its use.

However, I've never heard of brass cannon. Maybe I've missed something but I've only heard of bronze cannon. Any pics/documentation on brass cannons?

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PostPosted: Tue 26 Sep, 2006 8:00 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

For whatever it's worth, brass and bronzed do have a certain advantage over steel: They don't rust. This may have played at least some role into why someone would have chosen it over steel for hilt components.
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PostPosted: Tue 26 Sep, 2006 8:09 pm    Post subject: Re: Brass Cannon....?         Reply with quote

Nate C. wrote:
I really have to agree on the aesthetics issue for the most part although where historically accurate, I don't see a problem with its use.

However, I've never heard of brass cannon. Maybe I've missed something but I've only heard of bronze cannon. Any pics/documentation on brass cannons?


No brass canons that I know of, but I do know that some blunderbuss and some pistols used brass for the barrel.

Bronze was certainly used for canon and were better and stronger than the wrought iron early breach loading canons.

When cast iron became more reliable in quality it replaced bronze as the first choice for canon being lighter and more importantly much less expensive.

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PostPosted: Tue 26 Sep, 2006 8:50 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I think on swords at least, especially heavier types, brass is a bit soft and the hilt components might wear and loosen where they are mounted to the tang under the stress of combat. Historically, some areas/cultures would have been less proficient at producing steel, and in this situation bronze may have been used to hilt imported blades because it was harder than the plain iron that was availible. Just a guess.
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Chad Arnow
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PostPosted: Wed 27 Sep, 2006 7:29 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Patrick Kelly wrote:

You yourself have corrected me on several occasions by pointing out that we aren't exactly sure of the metallurgical composition of latten, except that it's a material similar to brass. So I don't think we should forget that now by making a claim that the presence of brass in a given design isn't neccessarily inaccurate.


True. Scholars, authors, and auctioneers interchange "latten" and "brass" often enough, however, that most folks see them as similar, if not the same (though none of these folks are infallible). Some folks are more careful to differentiate between what they feel are two different metals. I would love to see metallurgical analysis done to prove whether they are or aren't the same. I'd also love to see how the alloys used for weapons in the Middle Ages and Renaissance compare to what was used for 18th and 19th swords, and how they compare to what ends up on low-end repros today. Does anyone know of such research?

In the absence of hard metallurgical info, we can't say for certain that brass is ahistorical, which is really the point here. The casual dismissals of the material as ahistoric in general are what I'm trying to steer people away from.

Quote:
That's a pretty broad and sweeping statement that really over generalizes the issue. Priorities and missions of these weapons are common only in the broadest sense. I make my living with weapons every day. They'll all kill but they'll do it more or less effeciently in different circumstances. You don't use your trombone to play the part designated for the bassoon do you? Different materials for different missions.


I've played a bassoon part or two in my day. Wink May I recommend the Sonatas by Johann Ernst Galliard? They transcribe well to the trombone. The A minor and D minor sonatas are my favorites. Happy

I see your point, and I am making broad generalities: I'm not claiming brass is accurate in every circumstance, just that isn't wholly inaccurate in some circumstances. I've never claimed that a dagger from 1420 has the same design needs as a sword from 1420 or 1820 or brass-barreled pistol either. That would be stupid. I'm simply stating that the material can't have been entirely unsuitable for weapons making or it wouldn't have been used. That is a broad statement, but I think it can hold a little water. Happy

Quote:
I think people are down on brass primarily because superior materials are more easily available. Post your question on a forum like ARMA or AEMMA, where people use their sword for something other than slaying pool noodles and water bottles and I think you'll find some pretty strong opinions based on hands-on experience, not from a love of yellow metal.


I'd love to know their opinions, assuming they used a well-designed sword with a brass hilt in their tests. Those aren't easy to find in today's market, though I'm sure they're out there. Happy Have people done tests with similarly designed swords where the only real difference is in the hilt materials? I'd love to see those test results.

I have no doubt that brass is softer, and ultimately weaker. That's a no-brainer. But do we have hard evidence that a properly designed sword using a brass hilt is an unsuitable weapon? Nope. In fact, we have evidence that brass weapons were used at least in certain applications and that they filled their intended role.

Were steel/iron used more often? Of course they were (again, a no-brainer). Are they an inherently better option? Of course they are (again, a no-brainer). Does that mean brass is ahistoric because there were better options used, and used more widely? Of course not.

Quote:

I think you're right, but nor can we blanketly defend the use of the material based upon our personal preferences. I don't think we can make a blanket statement claiming that it's accurate without first discussing the context in which it's used, which is more varied than simply stating it was used for weapons and therefore accurate. You've mentioned swords from a wide range of eras as well as a cannon for comparison. I think the issue should be further defined.


I'm not defending brass because I like it more or less than anything else; it's quite to the contrary. I'm only trying to state that its use is not altogether ahistoric. I have no great love for brass and I haven't owned brass-hilted swords since the early days of my collection, when I didn't know better. Do I have any brass-hilted swords? No. Why? Because it's not the most accurate/typical material for the type of swords I have in my collection. Is it inaccurate for the dirk and sgian achles I have? Nope, so I'm okay with it. Would it be passably accurate on some other pieces? Sure but not on everything. I wouldn't have a harness made out of it, for example. If it's historically appropriate to use it, then I'm okay with it. If it's not, then I'm not. That's my preference.

Patrick, I get the sense you think I'm condoning the use of brass in every circumstance because it's been found in a few examples in a few areas in a few eras. I'm doing no such thing. The point is simply that brass or similar materials were used, so the mere presence of brass doesn't make a piece ahistorical, as I've heard people claim. If people just don't like the look of a material, I don't have an issue with that. I don't think it's wise, though, to condemn a material as ahistoric when we have evidence that shows it was used. There's really no need to read any farther into this discussion than that.

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PostPosted: Wed 27 Sep, 2006 7:36 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I always find it interesting when people are strongly against brass, but have no problem with bronze being used. As it has been mentioned before there are all different types of brass and bronze, some that can be very hard to tell apart particularly when it has tarnished a bit. Heck some bronze out there on the market you could swear is nothing more than just copper. It is something that I haven't looked into first hand, but would be interested in learning more about historical ore sources used through out history. Some I know claim that much of the stuff said to be bronze was more likely latten because of the ores used that they ended up with a mix of copper, tin, zinc instead of just one or the other. Others I know have claimed that things weren't naturally found together. So it is a grey area that in my opinion needs to be looked into. Something else to consider is the fact that none of it will be the same as what we have available today since some of the trace elements are removed for health, safety, and quality reasons.

As far as durability goes, those old iron swords with organic hilts have probably killed as many people as any other kind. If I'm a martial artist of course I'm not going to have to want to worry about maintainance issues like tightening things up or fixing edges when I don't have to with todays materials and what we are able to do. That doesn't make it more historical though.

Personally I would love to use bronze 90% of the time, but it just isn't going to happen. You can't just run down the street and pick up sheet bronze like you can brass. You can order it, but it isn't cheap, and it really is one of those thing that the vast majority of people aren't willing to pay the different between the two. Then there is casting that isn't cheap either and takes up time to carve waxes, wait for casters, etc. For major hilt pieces sure I'll have them cast in bronze, but for some of the little stuff it just isn't worth messing with brass bits are much easier to find and use. So when I use brass I just try to increase the surface area and promote a bit of tarnish so that it looks more the part.

Shane
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PostPosted: Wed 27 Sep, 2006 7:52 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Shane Allee wrote:
I always find it interesting when people are strongly against brass, but have no problem with bronze being used.


Maybe it's related to there never having been an historically recognized Brass Age?
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PostPosted: Wed 27 Sep, 2006 8:13 am    Post subject: Re: Brass Cannon....?         Reply with quote

Nate C. wrote:

However, I've never heard of brass cannon. Maybe I've missed something but I've only heard of bronze cannon. Any pics/documentation on brass cannons?


Some references to historical brass cannon examples:

http://www.bottomoftheharbour.com/cannonmain.html

http://www.wtblock.com/wtblockjr/jean.htm

http://rapidttp.com/milhist/vol015fm.html
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PostPosted: Wed 27 Sep, 2006 8:22 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I suspect that part of the negative reaction is conditioned by the modern view of brass as a "cheap" metal. Ditto for pewter and aluminum. But these are modern attitudes, not historical ones. As for bronze, I would guess that it's worth more per pound than steel and is considered a luxury metal. But, again that may be purely modern phenomenon based on lots of factors.

For what it's worth, this hilt is gilt bronze, 1400-1450:



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PostPosted: Wed 27 Sep, 2006 9:14 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Latten or brass was certainly used in the 13thc. in blade inlays. And I have examined two swords from the 15th c. with inlays that looked just like brass. Oakeshott also discusses one inlay which he states may be tin. So metals now thought of as "cheap" were certainly used in period for uses like inlays where strength was less of an issue to say the cross.
And yet during these periods we do not have any surviving hilt components made of latten. Really a case by case comparison or a global analysis of historic brass/latten is in order. Anybody pursuing a Ph.D. in metalurgy or archeology and not have a thesis subject yet? Wink

And just one thought on personal preference- not all yellow metals are bad. The Shaftesbury Sword (my personal favourite in terms of aestetics) has a pommel of iron which was gilt, and which I will have reproduced with gold plating.
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PostPosted: Wed 27 Sep, 2006 9:55 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Not a great article, but a start at least. I'm sure there is better research tucked away in academic journals, but those will take a bit more time to dig through.

http://www.unr.edu/sb204/geology/coptext.html

A few statements of interest...

"Early bronze varied in tin content, with other metal impurities mixed in, such as lead, zinc and antimony. The impurities, metals that often are found with copper in nature, tell us that the formula for bronze was probably a lucky discovery stemming f rom the melting of impure ore. Later experience showed that the best bronze consisted of about 90% copper and 10% tin."

"The alloy brass, in which copper is mixed with zinc, was discovered sometime before 600 B.C."

Anyone who has spent much time with archaeological catalogs has noticed the all too common use of the term "copper alloy" to describe all too many objects. I suspect this is just the simple reason that it isn't worth the time testing every little thing to make a somewhat blurry distinction between something being copper, bronze, latten, or brass.

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PostPosted: Wed 27 Sep, 2006 12:23 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Chad Arnow wrote:


True. Scholars, authors, and auctioneers interchange "latten" and "brass" often enough, however, that most folks see them as similar, if not the same (though none of these folks are infallible). Some folks are more careful to differentiate between what they feel are two different metals. I would love to see metallurgical analysis done to prove whether they are or aren't the same. I'd also love to see how the alloys used for weapons in the Middle Ages and Renaissance compare to what was used for 18th and 19th swords, and how they compare to what ends up on low-end repros today. Does anyone know of such research?


No. I can't imagine why anyone would bother.

Chad Arnow wrote:
In the absence of hard metallurgical info, we can't say for certain that brass is ahistorical, which is really the point here. The casual dismissals of the material as ahistoric in general are what I'm trying to steer people away from.


Patrick Kelly wrote:
I think people are down on brass primarily because superior materials are more easily available. Post your question on a forum like ARMA or AEMMA, where people use their sword for something other than slaying pool noodles and water bottles and I think you'll find some pretty strong opinions based on hands-on experience, not from a love of yellow metal.


Well some of our folks like brass fixtures on aluminum wasters. AL doesn't kick ass on brass, so they tend to look pretty good for a long time. I have a turned brass pommel on a steel blunt used in armour. It is pretty beat up from collision with helmets and arm harness. I thought it was nifty but time has told on it. Its beat and needs to be replaced. Medieval folks had a far better appreciation for value and durability in such expensive items as swords. I'm pretty sure there was an ordinance against cutlers mounting brass/latten/bronze fixtures on sword blades in medieval London. Something about shoddy workmanship hidden under gilt or silver finishes. If there was an ordinance then someone was doing it. Its just as clear they shouldn't have.

Chad Arnow wrote:
I'd love to know their opinions, assuming they used a well-designed sword with a brass hilt in their tests. Those aren't easy to find in today's market, though I'm sure they're out there. Happy Have people done tests with similarly designed swords where the only real difference is in the hilt materials? I'd love to see those test results.

I have no doubt that brass is softer, and ultimately weaker. That's a no-brainer. But do we have hard evidence that a properly designed sword using a brass hilt is an unsuitable weapon? Nope. In fact, we have evidence that brass weapons were used at least in certain applications and that they filled their intended role.

Were steel/iron used more often? Of course they were (again, a no-brainer). Are they an inherently better option? Of course they are (again, a no-brainer). Does that mean brass is ahistoric because there were better options used, and used more widely? Of course not.


Interesting how you answered your own questions there. Razz

Quote:

I think you're right, but nor can we blanketly defend the use of the material based upon our personal preferences. I don't think we can make a blanket statement claiming that it's accurate without first discussing the context in which it's used, which is more varied than simply stating it was used for weapons and therefore accurate. You've mentioned swords from a wide range of eras as well as a cannon for comparison. I think the issue should be further defined.


Have fun with that. Big Grin

AFAIK, copper alloys have higher specific gravity and are more brittle than iron. Common sense dictates a tool (weapon) constructed of an iron alloy will be more durable than a similarly sized and weighted tool constructed with copper alloy fixtures. If you plan to hang the thing on the wall, it isn't a tool to you anyway! The durability of its components is less important than the aesthetic pleasure it brings you. Intricate brass/bronze/latten castings et cetera are pleasant enhancements in that case. Swords made then weren't all for combat. Many were processional or bearing swords intended to awe an audience. Why be surprised if they did have copper alloy components?
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Chad Arnow
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PostPosted: Wed 27 Sep, 2006 2:24 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Kel Rekuta wrote:
I'm pretty sure there was an ordinance against cutlers mounting brass/latten/bronze fixtures on sword blades in medieval London. Something about shoddy workmanship hidden under gilt or silver finishes. If there was an ordinance then someone was doing it. Its just as clear they shouldn't have.


I'd love to read more about that to see exactly why the ordinance was written. Was it the material itself or how it was worked?

Quote:
Interesting how you answered your own questions there. Razz


My questions have never been about whether brass was better than steel. It's more about why our ancestors obviously used it when many modern folks seem to be so down on it as a functional material.

Quote:

AFAIK, copper alloys have higher specific gravity and are more brittle than iron. Common sense dictates a tool (weapon) constructed of an iron alloy will be more durable than a similarly sized and weighted tool constructed with copper alloy fixtures. If you plan to hang the thing on the wall, it isn't a tool to you anyway! The durability of its components is less important than the aesthetic pleasure it brings you. Intricate brass/bronze/latten castings et cetera are pleasant enhancements in that case. Swords made then weren't all for combat. Many were processional or bearing swords intended to awe an audience. Why be surprised if they did have copper alloy components?


Perhaps I'm misreading you, but this last statement implies that the presence of brass means that it was likely a ceremonial weapon. I'm not sure that can be backed up with evidence. Also, there are plenty of bearing swords made out of plain iron/steel.[/quote]

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