Today's post is the first in a multi-part examination of "the best" steel for swords. To cut to the punchline, the answer is "it depends on what you are trying to accomplish", but we will get to that.
Ever since the advent of the Iron Age, smelters, smiths, cutlers and warriors have sought out the 'best' materials out of which to produce edged weapons. At least, that's how the story goes. And, for certain, it is partially true. Though the vast majority of weapons were made from whatever material was available, there was always an interest for a special or magical steel. Whether imbued with unique ingredients or from a special source, this would give a fighter an edge (not sorry for pun) in combat or convey social status. In today's marketplace of scripted smithing competitions and sword-destroying television shows, the ancient search for ‘the best’ sword steel has come full circle.
This, however, is only part of the story. Even the ‘best’ pre-Modern materials were far less consistent than today's steels, and most medieval and Renaissance European weapons were constructed of metals that people today would consider to be wildly inconsistent.
In pre-Modern times certain historical swords, or sword-making locations, were well known for the quality of their blades, and the processes they used to produce this steel were often a guarded secret, shrouded in magic, mystery, and mystique. From the Damascus or Wootz steels of Central Asia and India, to the composite blades of Japan or the famed export blades of Toledo and Solingen, certain swords carried cultural cache and a near mythological reputation for quality. Sometimes, as in the case of some Frankish swords, traditional Japanese blades and the famous swords of Toledo, this meant utilizing several different qualities of steel and iron in the same blade. For example, by using soft iron as the core of the blade and welding a strip of hard steel to the edge. Other times, as in the case of pattern welded steel, several billets of different carbon contents would be welded together in layers and twisted or repeatedly folded to distribute the harder alloys throughout desired areas of the blade. Wootz or crucible steels were produced by smelting iron and carbon together in a sealed vessel to grow higher carbon crystalline structures, which when worked properly, would distribute throughout the the finished piece.
Wootz steel blade
What all of these processes had in common was the ability to reliably produce steel with durability, hardenability, and consistency, much of which involved the carbon content and physical structure of the blade. Especially in the period before the High Middle Ages such steel was a challenge to produce in any significant quantities, this lead smelters and smiths to contrive complex ways of conserving this precious hard steel. In addition to producing more functional blades these processes also often created visible differences in the blades made from them. These included distinctive figuring of the material such as in Wootz or pattern welded blades, and visible marks from differential hardening such as the hamon line that is valued in traditional Japanese swords.
These visual cues, along with makers marks on the blades such as the running wolf of Passau, the “Ulfberht” and “Ingelrii” names on inlayed in Frankish swords, or “Andrea Ferrara” on Scottish broadswords all signaled to people ‘in the know’ that this was a high quality blade, and carrying such a blade was a mark of social status.
A pattern welded Viking period sword, from a the Oakeshott Collection
Of course, all of these marks were copied and forged as soon as it became widely known that they were an indication of quality. This has become legend in many ways. The story goes that after Andrea Ferrara had been hired to teach the Scottish smiths to make high quality blades in the Italian tradition they started putting his name on just about any sword they wanted people to consider high quality. It was the original “real McCoy” (though there is also very little evidence that Ferrara actually taught them, or that there were many Scots making blades at the time).
Andrea Ferrar marked blade on a basket hilt in the Oakeshott Collection
While these processes were more or less effective at producing steel that performed adequately to make good weapons, the steel that they made was, by and large, far less consistent, in alloys, carbon content and purity than modern steels. This is evident in variability in hardness of historic swords, both between pieces and along each individual blade.
Graphs illustrating historic sword hardness and sampling example
This wide variation can tell us a few things about historic swords. First of all, they were very inconsistent. Second, most of them were pretty soft compared to modern replicas. Third, maximizing hardness may not have been something that was really all that important to most sword makers and users, despite the cultural interest in exotic and high performance swords. Both of these graphics come from Arms and Armor production manager and Oakeshott Institute secretary Craig Johnson's article Sword Blade Hardness: The Current Research. It is fascinating and should be required reading.
Today, our entire economy is based on the mass production of good quality steels of innumerable varieties. The steel of today is a codified commodity that can be relied on to be highly consistent and tailored to specialized uses. Medieval steel production was an individual batch activity that created a variety of qualities in a single smelt, and a lot of variation between batches, even when made by accomplished smelters. In the next post in this series we will explore contemporary steels for modern sword making.