The idea that so-called "Damascus" steel produces superior swords is quite common, but is it true? To be sure, there is a history to the idea that goes back to the crucible or watered steels of the post-Classical and medieval periods. At a time when essentially all European swords were made of marginally hard metals, the high carbon steels of the Indian and Persian civilizations were clearly different. This steel required special forging techniques, and the secrets of their production were unknown outside the centers where it was made. Crucible steel was often visually different from European iron and steel with a surface pattern reminiscent of watered silk that arose from the carbon structures in the steel. This variety of steel came to be known as Damascus steel, allegedly because of the city where it could be bought.
Close up of the watered appearance of crucible steel sword
During the migration period and early Viking era many European swords also had complex visual structures that were the result of piling or pattern welding ingots of various irons and steels together into a blade. While superficially similar in appearance to true Damascus steel, these pattern welded blades were really a composite of several metals welded together, an altogether different beast than the crucible steels of the East. Nevertheless, the term "Damascus" has been applied to these compound swords off and on for at least the past century. This is a historical confusion rather than an indication of any type of real connection between the materials in question.
A Viking period sword with a pattern welded core, pic from "The serpent in the sword"
In the last couple of decades the renewed prominence of blade smithing as an art form has seen a surge in the popularity of pattern welded blades at the same time that popular culture, novels, movies, reality shows, and video games have reinforced the idea that "Damascus steel" is some kind of super material. This is simply not true. While crucible steels performed better than other steels at the time, most pattern welded blades were not made of this material, with some notable exceptions like some of the Ulfberht swords. In non-crucible cases the pattern welding seems to have primarily been decorative rather than structural.
A modern pattern welded sword
In the video below Dr. Nathan Clough discusses what makers of pattern welded historical swords were trying to achieve by using this process, what limitations they faced, and how modern research has changed the way we think about so called "Damascus" steel.
Resources to learn more about current knowledge on European sword making and pattern welded historical swords:
Alan Williams work has been very important, including "The Knight and the Blast Furnace", "The Sword and the Crucible", and various research articles.
Also check out research articles "Does pattern welding make Anglo-Saxon sword stronger", and "The role of pattern welding in historical swords- mechanical testing of materials used in their manufacture", and the informative article with pictures "The serpent in the sword"
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.