Skills of medival European swordsmiths
A while ago a fellow hema practitioner said that only 3% of the medival swordsmiths had the knowledge and skill (perhaps also no tools) to harden and temper a swordblade.
That would mean that almost all historical European swords were unhardened steel (maybe the edge was slightly hardened because the smith might have cold-hammered it).
When I heard that I was very sceptical, because this just very unlikely and not logical at all as the swords would instantly bent in combat.
But there is no better way to clarify this than to ask some other sword-nerds, right ;)
My gut reaction is "hogwash". It's like saying most peasants didn't know how to grow crops or raise chickens, or didn't have the tools to run a farm. You don't GET to be a swordsmith unless you know how to MAKE SWORDS. Period. If you show such little promise as an apprentice, you'll be working the bellows until you die of old age. If you have not tools, you can't set up shop and make swords.

Now, were the techniques for making and hardening steel closely guarded secrets? Sure! Secrets passed from one master to his students, so they could be masters in their turn. Obviously without the microscopic knowledge we have today, it was more of an art than a science, and it seems pretty clear that some swords were better than others. But 3%? I seriously doubt it. Unless someone can show that 97% of surviving swords had no steel.

Swords in ancient Greek and Roman times were frequently iron, and they worked fine. And I *have* heard that there were still plenty of iron swords well into the middle ages. Though one caveat I would add is that it was apparently common for archeologists in the 19th and early 20th centuries to use *annealing* as a method for conserving and stabilizing excavated iron objects, including swords, which of course destroys all trace of how the sword may have been heat-treated originally. Not to mention weapons that may have been on funeral pyres or in burned buildings.

Final note, iron is not lead. It won't just fold up under a normal battlefield blow. If you try to cut down a tree with it, yes, that will be bad, but even good swords are not meant for cutting wood. You *can* make reasonable weapons and armor from plain iron, and it was done quite often in ancient and medieval times.

Matthew
Yes. That is mostly what I think too. One thing I have to say though: Its a huge differens whether you have an iron Gladius or an iron longsword. The longsword will bent significantly easier, because the blade is longer and (near the tip) narrower in thickness and profile. The length is the most important factor as the leverage is much higher, and also it has a higher tipspeed when you swing it ( the longer blade produces a bigger radius), which makes a lot more force act on the blade.
Furthermore a good sword should be able to chop down a small tree (about 3" diameter)without failing, because in a battle it would slash against helmets, plate armour, other swords and also cut through bone.
Due to all these reasons a iron longsword would be unusable on the medival battlefield.
Therefore I also think, that 3% is very unrealistic.
Maybe I understood my Mate wrongly, and he was refering to the amount of swordsmiths compared to the number of standard blacksmiths.
If you're interested in the metallurgy of western European swords in the 14th / 15th / 16th century, the people to read are Dr. Alan Williams and Prof-Em. Dr. Helmut Föll

If you tried to chop down a tree with most of the swords that have ever been used in battle, I don't think you would like the result. That is just not something that most swords are built to do!
I would like to know what sources your hema friend based that position on, because as far as I am concerned it is utter rubbish.

Swordsmiths were a specialised group within a specialised field (blacksmithing). Anyone can make a sword, but if you want a good sword that you can your life to, you would go to a swordsmith - or more particularly a bladesmith, as the hilting was often a separate speciality. It was, quite literally, their profession to make good blades.

That said, there are limits imposed by materials and techniques on how good the blade would end up - you cannot grab any old piece of iron and expect it to make a good blade. It would ideally have 0.6-1.4% carbon, and if you are lucky the alloying elements in the parent ore make for an even better steel - this is why places like Solingen became famous for the quality of the blades made there, and why so many swords such as claymores were hilted on to German blades. Bladesmiths served apprenticeships to learn their skills, which often relied on how much your teacher knew and whether their special knowledge was good, but all the basic skills were well known. One of those basic skills was assessing the steel you had for its suitability for blade making. There were limits with the heat treats, but you should get a tough, flexible, blade that will take a good edge and rebound from most abuse. It wasn't magic, it was applied good techniques, just without our modern understandings of the internal workings of steels.

So, anyone can make a crappy sword, and if just anyone did so the sword would be crappy, and liable to get you killed. Buy from a trained bladesmith, and you would get the best blade possible with the materials and techniques available at that moment. The best European blades could be just as good as the work in blades from any other part of the world.
Markus Fischer wrote:
Yes. That is mostly what I think too.


Good!

Quote:
One thing I have to say though: Its a huge differens whether you have an iron Gladius or an iron longsword. The longsword will bent significantly easier, because the blade is longer and (near the tip) narrower in thickness and profile. The length is the most important factor as the leverage is much higher, and also it has a higher tipspeed when you swing it ( the longer blade produces a bigger radius), which makes a lot more force act on the blade.


I tend to agree, BUT if iron long swords have been found, then the only conclusion we can make is that they did *not* just bend in combat, or otherwise fail in normal use, because anyone making such swords would not be in business very long.

Quote:
Furthermore a good sword should be able to chop down a small tree (about 3" diameter)without failing, because in a battle it would slash against helmets, plate armour, other swords and also cut through bone.


No. *Axes* are for chopping trees. You don't use a gun as a hammer, nor a spoon as a chisel. And in battle, you don't bother trying to hit someone in the helmet or armor with a sword, you hit them where there is *no* metal. Bone, yes, but a decent iron sword can handle that.

Quote:
Due to all these reasons a iron longsword would be unusable on the medival battlefield.


Then we won't find any, will we? No one is going into battle with a weapon that won't work.

Quote:
Maybe I understood my Mate wrongly, and he was refering to the amount of swordsmiths compared to the number of standard blacksmiths.


Could be! But there are some VERY odd ideas out there...

Matthew
Well, maybe these finds are swords that were not intended to be used as a weapon, but rather as a status symbol and an artwork. Annother possibility is, that it was simply a poor-mans sword, who couldnt afford an expensive sword made from fine steel.
Of course a sword is not an axe, but you definitely WILL hit steel in battle (and if it's "just" your opponents blade) a hard strike, edge on flat, from a powerful warrior will definitely bend your blade.
And a cut in to your opponents body that was poorly performed (which will happen in the heat of the fight) WILL bend your blade.
Ive seen a Japanese katana bend from cutting tatami, because the edge inlinement was very of.....yes..... that's quite substantial. And I think that the unhardened spine of a katana is comparable to iron.

To conclude I think that iron is definitely much worse than hardened steel, but I also think that it is not so bad, that it can't be used at all.
When you have a good cutting technique and a defensive fighting style, that relies on quick, short attacks without many exchanges, it is possible to fight with an ironsword without too much trouble.
But the question is: Y tho?
When you can't afford a steel longsword....get an axe...or a Speer.
There is no reason to fight with a sword type that (because of its physique and fighting style) wasn't intended to be made from iron.
Really i think people put to much stock in to the metal of swords, there job is to not fail in combat and it being sharpish is secondary.
The tales of swords bending to the level were it impends a fighter are a myth, from an old Roman pre battle prep speech.

A lot of finds have only a cursory examination of the grain microstructure or metal content and there a general trend to call anything that got a carbon content of text book rage 0.6 to 2.0% carbon as High-carbon steel.
Given that anything thing that's corroded has likey lost any working edge it might of had, an things like any case-hardened layer are long gone.
Markus Fischer wrote:
To conclude I think that iron is definitely much worse than hardened steel, but I also think that it is not so bad, that it can't be used at all.
When you have a good cutting technique and a defensive fighting style, that relies on quick, short attacks without many exchanges, it is possible to fight with an ironsword without too much trouble.
But the question is: Y tho?
When you can't afford a steel longsword....get an axe...or a Speer.
There is no reason to fight with a sword type that (because of its physique and fighting style) wasn't intended to be made from iron.

I think that, although quality obviously varied, there seems (from the studies I saw) no apparent correlation between price and quality. For instance, good and bad swords existed in both well made and highly decorated examples and in plain ones.

But we modern people are used to modern steels which perform exactly according to the specification. The idea of a sword failing or not doing what it's supposed to means it was "a wallhanger" or "poorly made in China/India/Pakistan", vs. good swords from reputable makers which always perform exactly as advertised.

In pre-industrial times were was obviously a lot of variation and it seems like people were fine with that.

Also we need to consider the time period which we are discussing. Metallurgy in the early iron age was not the same as in the late middle ages.

Graham Shearlaw wrote:
A lot of finds have only a cursory examination of the grain microstructure or metal content and there a general trend to call anything that got a carbon content of text book rage 0.6 to 2.0% carbon as High-carbon steel.
Given that anything thing that's corroded has likey lost any working edge it might of had, an things like any case-hardened layer are long gone.


In the Klingenmuseum in Solingen they have a couple of swords, which were polished by a Japanese trained sword polisher. The sax has a very nice and visible hamon. All these blades seem to be in perfectly usable condition.


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3% is a very specific number. Did the person who said this have some kind of source? Not that I like to assume but I expect there is no historical source(s) that support this statement. I wouldn't be surprised if they were just repeating what they heard from some pseudo-documentary from Youtube or the History Channel.

I'm no expert but don't some other metal items besides swords need to be heat treated and/or tempered? Some types of armor as well as some tools? I don't have a source for this but if I had to guess, then I'd expect the majority of metal workers, not just sword smiths, would know how to do heat treatments and tempering.

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