Edged weapons have been a part of our history for as long as records have been kept. In fact, some of the earliest tools used by primitive man were sharpened pieces of stone.
Swords and knives have played a significant role in every major civilization. Even in today's modern society, swords are used in many of the most important military or state ceremonies and functions. Think about the commercials for the U.S. Marine Corps and how they focus on the Marine saber, or the knighting ceremony performed by the Queen of England where a sword is used to touch the shoulders of the knighted individual.
The earliest known swords were made from copper, one of the most common metals available. Copper swords were very soft and dulled quickly. Later on, swords were made from bronze. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. An alloy is a mixture of two or more base metals or elements to create another metal with certain specific properties. In the case of bronze, the combination of copper and tin created a metal that is:
- Stronger than copper
- More flexible than copper
- Stays sharp for longer than copper
A better sword was developed with the advent of iron. Iron ore was easily found in every part of the ancient world. Iron ore contains iron combined with oxygen. To make iron from iron ore, you need to eliminate the oxygen to create pure iron. The most primitive facility used to refine iron from iron ore is called a bloomery.
In a bloomery you burn charcoal with iron ore and a good supply of oxygen (provided by a bellows or blower). Charcoal is essentially pure carbon. The carbon combines with oxygen to create carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide (releasing lots of heat in the process). Carbon and carbon monoxide combine with the oxygen in the iron ore and carry it away, leaving a porous, sponge-like mass called a bloom. The bloom was then hammered to remove most of the impurities. The resulting metal was easy to work with, but iron swords did not hold an edge well and were still too soft.
Iron became the metal of choice for swords and other weapons, and helped forge new empires. Both iron and bronze weapons and tools made an incredible impact on the balance of power during the eras of their respective prominence. In fact, those periods of history are now known as the Iron Age and the Bronze Age.
Eventually, steel was discovered. Steel is an alloy of iron (ferrite) and a small amount of carbon (cementite), usually between 0.2 and 1.5 percent. Steel was originally made using a process called cementation. Pieces of iron were placed inside of a container made from a substance with a very high carbon content. The container was placed in a furnace and kept at a high temperature for a length of time that could range from hours to days. During this time, carbon migration would occur, which means the iron would absorb some of the carbon from the container. The resulting mixture of iron and carbon was steel.
Photo courtesy Don Fogg Knives
Don Fogg working at his forge
Steel has a number of advantages over iron and bronze:
- It is very hard.
- It is flexible when heat-treated properly.
- It can stay very sharp for a long time.
- It can be worked with and shaped.
- It is more resistant to rust and corrosion than iron.
Photo courtesy Don Fogg Knives
A historically-inspired representation of a Celtic sword
Almost all swords made today are some type of steel alloy. In most modern steels, there also are a number of other elements. You'll learn more about the various steel alloys later. But first, let's talk about the tools you need to make a sword.