Is there any real difference between a sword that is made via forging out a hunk of steel vs ground from a blank? This question has been caught up in the cultural appreciation of smithing and extensively debated among sword-fanciers. When a blade is crafted, there are multiple ways to shape the steel to create the shiny, sharp finished piece. In the historical production of swords, the commodity of steel was the expensive part of the equation. The time and talent to create the piece were a less expensive factor in the total cost of the piece and may have involved several craftspeople in a series of steps to create the finished piece.
The initial step after acquiring a piece of steel was to shape the raw material into a sword shape. In most cases this would be done with hammer and heat. Whether a water powered hammer (probably used to do early shaping) or forging with hand and hammer to refine and bevel the blade to a rough shape. The next step would be to remove the scale and forged surface with grinding, scraping and files. This removing of material after the forging is part of making every blade that has a smooth polished surface.
This process allowed for the most economical use of the expensive resource, the steel. In the early medieval period, many blades would be made with composite construction. This could be just the addition of the tang area in wrought iron, a more accessible commodity, the construction of the blade with a soft iron core and steel edges and point, or the application of steel to the edges and pattern welded veneers to a soft iron core in the blades associated with early medieval Northern Europe. These types of construction would take much longer and more individuals to make but it would allow for the most economic use the expensive steel, use some less expensive material, and achieve the wanted decorative results.
In the modern production of blades, the costs of creation have flipped from the traditional model. In today's economy the most expensive factor in a swords construction is usually the labor. Sadly, the sword maker today still does not make what an average craftsman i.e., carpenter, electrician or butcher makes but it is still the most expensive part of the process. What is the least expensive part of the process? The steel. The average sword blade has just a few dollars of steel in the blade, of which a great deal will be lost in the process of grinding. This occurs as grinding or stock removal is the most cost efficient and effective way to shape a blade. When one uses a stone, bit or abrasive to remove whatever is not a blade from a bar modern steel it is the quickest and least expensive way to create a quality sword blade.
Forging the curve into a training Dussack.
Today the romance of the forged blade often holds the popular imagination in a way that defies the world of physics and metallurgy. In the Middle Ages the forging of blades made economic sense and material sense. The materials they were working often benefited from additional hammer work as they often had slag inclusions and impurities not to mention a variable carbon content. So, the additional deformation by hammer and refining that occurred in the final stages of forging a blade where helpful and positive. In today's modern steels and precision metallurgy, processing, and heat treatment manual deformation such as forging can actually make the outcome worse. Modern steel is usually produced hot in giant rollers as part of its early forming at the mill. This process accomplishes the task of taking large pieces of steel and making them into pieces of the desired size, taking the place of repeated blows by a hammer. Some will tell you there is a material advantage in the hammering of steel, but with modern materials this is really not the case. In the end a sword ground from modern homogenous steel that is properly heat treated really is the best of both worlds; it is relatively economical when compared to a hand forged blade and will be at least as good in terms of durability etc.
Hand grinding a blade
The forging of blades is still crucial to the understanding of the historical blades we study and reproduce. Sometimes the inspiration of fire and hammer is just the magic that a craftsperson needs to express their art. If they are really interested in the historical process, or if a customer is interested in a particular methodology of creation most makers can accommodate this request. Some makers prefer to have a particular process as their modus operandi, and that should be respected.
In many ways, the modern dichotomy of "Forged vs. Stock Removal" is pretty meritless, especially when it comes to the quality of the blade. The primary reason that blades were forged historically was to produce a basic, bevelled steel bar that could then be ground to final form. Today the steel mill does the first part very well, freeing us to concentrate on other aspects of sword making. The joy and toil of creating swords today can come with many challenges and can be fraught with expectations by those who are interested in our product. The key is to choose a craftsperson who is concerned with creating an enduring piece to last the ages, that is the important part of the equation.
Here at Arms and Armor we take advantage of modern metallurgy using steel from the mill that we cut to shape. We don’t just use machining to shape our blades, the majority of the grinding is done by hand to shape the piece, hand and hammer are used when needed, but our grinding is a process very similar to historical grinding pictured above. We think this contributes to the authentic character of our blades with the slight asymmetries that exist in any handmade item. If hand forging a piece is the most efficient way to make it, that is the way we do it, like the dussack blade Nathan is forging a curve into above. When a customer wants a hand forged sword, dagger, or spear we give them a quote, and it will definitely be quite a bit more than one of our standard pieces, but we do enjoy occasionally hand forging a piece. We think though that our standard process gives you the best combination of value and quality, allowing us to put our skill and knowledge into the aspects of the sword that will really be improved by extra work.
Nathan Clough, Ph.D. is Vice President of Arms and Armor and a member of the governing board of The Oakeshott Institute. He is a historical martial artist and a former university professor of cultural geography. He has given presentations on historical arms at events including Longpoint and Combatcon, and presented scholarly papers at, among others, The International Congress on Medieval Studies.
Craig Johnson is the Production Manager of Arms and Armor and Secretary of The Oakeshott Institute. He has taught and published on the history of arms, armor and western martial arts for over 30 years. He has lectured at several schools and Universities, WMAW, HEMAC, 4W, and ICMS at Kalamazoo. His experiences include iron smelting, jousting, theatrical combat instruction and choreography, historical research, European martial arts and crafting weapons and armor since 1985.