About Swords

The study of the European, or Western, Sword is currently enjoying a renaissance. There are many resources available on the internet and in print that can assist you in your study.

General Study

myArmoury.com -- a relatively new but excellent site devoted to the study of the sword, both historical and modern reproductions.

The Medieval Sword Resource Site -- a good overview of the Western Sword, with a great deal of information on Viking swords.

The ARMA -- currently the largest of a growing number of organizations devoted to the study of Western Martial Arts (WMA), focusing on the rediscovery of the techniques described in historical swordsmanship manuals.

The Mid-Atlantic Society for Historical Swordsmanship (MASHS) -- A Maryland based group of sword practitioners and enthusiasts dedicated to the study, recreation, and preservation of historic European sword arts. Weapon systems include Medieval sword and shield, Medieval longsword, Renaissance cut and thrust, rapier, and classical smallsword dueling.

St. Martin's Academy --
The St. Martins Academy of Medieval Arms studies Medieval European self-defense as set down in instructional treatises by Medieval Masters of Arms. Located in Madison, Wisconsin.

Bjorn's Sword Site -- lots of informative articles in both English and Swedish.

Sword Typologies
There are several "typologies," or attempts at the classification of Medieval, Viking, Migration and other sword types.

One should keep in mind, however, that while these typologies are useful for a modern understanding of the evolution of blades and hilt designs, these classifications are modern constructs and not terminologies used in the original period.

Below are some resource links (where avaiable) on the various sword typologies:

Oakeshott's Typology of the Medieval Sword -- Currently the definitive work on the classification and development of the Medieval sword (from late Viking to late Medieval.)

Geibig's Typology of the Viking Sword
-- A classification of Viking blade types (which some consider sub-types of Oakeshott's Type X blade.)

Jan Petersen's Typology of the Viking Sword -- A classification study of Norwegian Viking swords published in 1919, focusing primarily on hilt types.

Wheeler Viking Sword Typology
-- A classification study of Viking swords, focusing primarily on hilt types and the blades generally associated with them.

Behmer Migration Sword Typology -- Typology categorizing swords of Anglo-Saxon origin.

The Parts of a Sword

Backsword -- A sword blade, which has a cutting edge only on one side. Most commonly found on curved blades, such as sabers, falchion, and cutlass.

Basket -- An arrangement of steel bars, and panels that form a basket-like cage around the grip (and the wielder's hand). These are most commonly found on Scottish basket-hilted swords, and European rapiers.

Behmer typology -- Typology categorizing swords of Anglo-Saxon origin.

Blade -- The section of the sword, which is not part of the hilt.

Chappe -- A flap of leather attached to a sword's crossguard, which serves to protect the mouth of the scabbard and prevent water from entering. Also called a Rain Guard.

Cruciform -- A generic term for any sword which when inverted point downward will form the shape of a crucifix. This was, to a degree, a religious symbol to the knights of the crusading era.

Edge -- The cutting portion of the sword's blade.

Ferrule -- A metal band at either end of the grip used to secure the leather or wire wraps. Also used as a decoration.

Finger guard -- A small crescent shape bar which extends from the sword's guard, and rises parallel to the sword's ricasso, which enables a user to loop their finger over the guard (which increases point control, but decreases cutting power), without fear of being injured by an opponent's blade sliding down their own.

Fuller -- A groove down the center of a blade, used to both lighten a sword, and conserve sword steel (making a wider blade possible with less material). Often mistakenly called a "Blood Groove."

Full tang -- A sword tang that passes the entire length of the grip, and is attached directly to the sword's pommel.

Grip -- The part of the hilt held by the user (the handle).

Guard -- The section of the sword hilt whose purpose is to protect the wielder's hand. It may take of the shape of a simple bar, a steel basket, a flat disc, or several other forms.

Hamon -- The "line" or visual characteristic typical of Japanese blades caused by the use of differential hardening (see below).

Hilt -- All of a sword, except for the blade proper. The crossguard, grip, and pommel.

Knuckle guard -- A curved bar which extends from the guard to pommel, designed to prevent the user's hand from being cut by a sliding blow from an opponent's weapon.

Oakeshott typology -- A typology created by Ewart Oakeshott as a way of classifying historic swords (antiques) into codified groups and subgroups, based on the sword's shape, size, and physical features.

Pas d'An -- Portion of a rapier's guard, which surrounds the base of the sword blade.

Point -- The tip of the sword's blade.

Pommel -- A counter-weight at the end of a sword's hilt, used to balance the sword. Also may be used as a striking implement.

Quillon(s) -- Renaissance term for the crossguard. Used almost exclusively when referring to rapiers.

Quillon block -- Section of the rapier's hilt where the guard's arms (both bars, and rings) are attached. The tang of the sword blade also passes through this point, with the ricasso on one side, and the sword's grip on the other.

Rat-tail tang -- A more modern method of manufacture involving a small diameter rod being welded onto a normal tang. This method has proven faulty in many low-end swords in that they often break due to poor welds.

Ricasso -- Any narrowing or thickening of a sword's blade, which remains unsharpened, just above the guard. Increases the user's ability to loop a finger over the guard, to increase control of the point.

Scent stopper -- Pommel type which resembles the stopper in an antique perfume jar.

Tang -- The section of the sword blade that the hilt is attached to. This part of the sword is not visible when the blade is fully mounted.

Welded tang -- A tang where the steel of the blade has had another piece of steel (very often low carbon steel) welded on to it as an extension.

Wheel -- A pommel that is in the shape of a flat disc. It may have added features, such as beveled edges, or raised center sections.

Wire-wrap -- Spun and twisted metal wire (may be iron, brass, bronze, copper, etc.), which is then wrapped around the sword grip. Often used to increase the ability to grip a sword's handle. Also a sign of wealth, as these grips tended to be more expensive to manufacture.

The Functionality of a Sword

Just because a sword has most of the identifiable parts listed above does not mean that it is a truly functional sword. Many factors go into creating a sword that excels in its primary function -- cutting.

It is extremely important that the sword have good balance (which differs according to the intended use and resulting design of the sword) and good "harmonic balance," or how the sword design carries the vibration resulting from the cutting action. In addition, it is important, (again based on the sword's intended use), that the blade be properly hardened and tempered. Here are definitions of some important terms relating to a sword's performance characteristics:

BL: Blade Length

Blade geometry: The shaping of a sword's blade, both in the profile, and distal views. It is largely responsible for the blade's specific use, and potential as a weapon.

"CoB": The Center of Balance (also known as the "CoG"- Center of Gravity, or "PoB" - Point of Balance) is the point along the blade where the sword has equal mass on either side.

How to determine "CoB": To test your sword, place a ruler or yardstick on edge and move the blade up and down from hilt to point until it balances. Then measure from the hilt to that point.

"CoP": The Center of Percussion is the point along the length of the blade where there is little or no vibration when the blade is struck on an object. When this section of the blade is used in striking, it transmits the least amount of shock and vibration to the user's hand, and also will provide the deepest penetration in a target. How to find the "CoP": A simple test to establish the "CoP" is to hold the sword vertically (with the point up) and lightly tap the side of the pommel. The point in the blade that doesn't vibrate is "CoP."

Pivot Point:
When holding a sword at the top of the grip (where the grip meets the guard), point downward, between thunb and forefinger, move the sword back and forth with gentle movements of the hand. The sword will naturally pivot between your fingers and there should be a spot either along the blade or at the point where the blade seems to remain stationary. This is referred to as the pivot point -- the proper location of the pivot point will vary depending on the purpose of the sword -- a thrusting sword should have a pivot point located at the very tip of the blade point, a cutting sword may have a pivot point close to or corresponding to the CoP.

Distal Taper: Distal taper refers to the change in thickness from the base of the blade to the tip. The distribution of this mass in the blade makes a profound difference in the handling characteristics and performance of the blade.

Profile Taper: Profile taper refers to the changes in the outline of the blade or edge, from the base of the blade to the tip. (Imagine lying a sword flat on a piece of paper and tracing the outline.) Oakeshott's Typology of the Medieval sword refers to variations in this profile/outline taper. Some blades have outlines that are parallel until very close to the point (like an Oakeshott Type X, with little or no profile taper), some have very prounounced profile taper (such as an Oakeshott Type XV.)

Forging: Heating the stock piece of steel in a forge (or other heat source) and hammering into shape on an anvil. It is more conservative of steel, but can also be more time consuming. Regardless of how close to shape a piece is forged, a small bit of grinding is still necessary to finish the piece. Neither technique (forging or stock-removal) is better than the other; they are just different methods to achieve the same results.

Hardening (Quenching): Once the forging or stock removal process is completed, a blade is heated to critical temperature (point where the steel is non-magnetic, approx. 1400 degrees depending on the steel) and then cooled quickly in a type of quench medium. This process hardens the blade, so that it may retain a cutting edge without wearing quickly. Quench mediums can vary depending on the type of steel being used. They include water, brine (salt water), oil (natural and synthetic), and modern quenching polymers.

OL: Overall Length

Stock-Removal: Using a grinder to completely shape a stock piece of steel into a sword. This technique may be slightly faster, but also is more wasteful of steel, as instead of changing the shape (as in forging), it is grinding it away. Neither technique (forging or stock-removal) is better than the other; they are just different methods to achieve the same results.

"Sweet spot": The sweet spot on a sword often correlates to the "CoP" (Center of Percussion- see above), and is the place on a sword's blade which will deliver the strongest blow, without loosing power due to vibration.

Tempering: When a blade is hardened, it is very brittle as it comes out of the quench, and if stuck on a hard object can actually shatter. Tempering is a thermal heat-treatment where the blade is heated to a temperature below that which the blade was hardened at (usually between 350-500 degrees), and is held at this temperature for a predetermined length of time. This reduces the hardness very slightly, but greatly reduces the brittleness and the amount of stress in the blade.

Differential Tempering: In this process a blade is through hardened (see below) to a high degree, and then heat is applied to the spine of the blade to make it softer and more flexible. This leaves the edges hard, but the body soft enough to withstand shocks and impacts. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. Tempering tongs are simple tools that consist of a standard set of tongs that have a bar welded to each of the jaws. The tongs are heated and applied to the spine of the blade. This softens the blade, but leaves the edge hardness intact. Another method that requires a more delicate touch is to use a propane torch. Gently play it across the spine of the blade until the desired hardness is reached. The second method is more difficult to master and has a larger margin of error.

Through Hardening: Quenching a blade so that a consistent hardness exists throughout the blade's thickness. With through hardening, there needs to be a compromise between having an edge hard enough to retain its sharpness, and having a softer, more flexible body that won't break when it is used.

Differential Hardening: Quenching a blade so that the edges are harder than the spine or body of the blade. The Japanese sword is the most common example of this type of quenching. The spine of the blade is coated with a clay mixture, then heated and quenched. The thick clay coating on the spine acts like an insulator and causes the coated portion of the blade to cool more slowly (the slower the cooling, the softer the steel). This style of heat-treating is what is responsible for the curvature in a Japanese blade, because only one edge is hardened (hardened steel has a larger grain size than softer steel). There are a number of smiths today that use this method on double-edged sword blades. The hardening on both edges causes the blade to remain straight. The use of clay is also responsible for the visual effects (hamon) in the steel.

Harmonic Balancing: Adjusting the weight of the pommel, and length of the hilt, in relation to the weight of the blade, in order to establish a "Harmonic Node" (see below) within the grip where the user's hand grasps the hilt.

How to determine the "harmonic balance" of a sword: The harmonic balance of a sword may be determined through a similar process as that used to find the "CoP." In this instance, reverse the sword's direction (so that the blade is point down), and grasp the grip just above the guard. Again, gently tap the pommel with the heel of your hand. If you feel vibration in your fingertips, move them slightly up or down the grip and repeat. Once you locate the section of the grip that doesn't vibrate, you'll be able to determine the "harmonic balance" of the sword. Different swords will have this second node of non-vibration in different locations. Thrusting swords will require it to be nearer (and sometimes within) the guard, while cutting swords will need it placed around the position of the index, middle, and ring fingers of the user's hand.

Harmonic Node: A point in the sword where vibration is either minimal or non-existent. There are typically at least two of these "Nodes" within the length of a sword, one in the blade (also known as CoP) and one in the grip.

Rockwell hardness: A modern steel hardness scale, with a range of 20-80 points (on the Rockwell C scale). The higher the number, the harder and more brittle the steel is.

Sword Steel

Following are some explanations of the different types of steel used in sword making.

Simple Alloy Steel: This series of steel has a small amount of alloying elements in it and is comprised mostly of carbon and iron. The steel is often designated with a four-digit number (Ex. 10XX). The last two digits vary, indicating the percentage of carbon in the steel. The higher the carbon content, the harder and more brittle the steel. Carbon contents above 1% become incredibly hard, and can be difficult to use in sword lengths, although there are some custom smiths who are very successful with these steels.

Stainless Steel: These are modern steels that contain a chromium content of 8-12% or higher. The chromium gives the steel its stainless characteristics, but is also weakens the grain boundaries in the steel. This causes the steel to be brittle, and, when used in sword-length blades, can cause the blades to fracture very easily when put to use in cutting or even hard swinging. It is a good steel for low-maintenance knives, but it is good to keep in mind that this does NOT mean that it will not rust, just that it is corrosion-resistant.

Chromium Content: Chromium in large amounts is detrimental to sword steel (as discussed above), but in smaller amounts (less than approx. 5%) it helps in refining the steel grain, and creates a more durable blade. This may seem like the opposite of what it does in stainless steel, but it is a case of "too much of a good thing" can be harmful.

Chrome-Vanadium Steel: This is the preferred steel of Del Tin of Italy. Del Tin manufactures historically based European swords, and is considered the benchmark for production manufacturing. The steel uses both Vanadium and small amounts of Chromium to refine the steel's grain and increase toughness. Del Tin blades have been used in such movies as Braveheart, The Three Musketeers (Sutherland, Sheen, and O'Donnell), and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Damascus: Damascus properly refers to Indian "Wootz" steel. A type of steel known for its amazing sword characteristics, Damascus blades display an unusual pattern in the steel due to different elements present during the smelting process. This is a bit of an improper term for Pattern-Welded Steel (see below), which displays similar visual characteristics.

Pattern-Welded Steel: This is the process of taking two steels with dissimilar properties and forge-welding them together into a single bar. The bar can then be manipulated by twisting, folding, and other various techniques to give a visible pattern in the steel's surface. Once the bar is forged and rough polished, it is given an etching that brings out the pattern and creates topography in the steel.

Mild Steel: A generic term for any steel that is not hardenable. This is often modern steel that has a carbon content ranging from .08-.18 % carbon (AISI 1008 or 1018 steel). It is ductile enough from a small amount of cold-working, but stiffer and stronger than pure iron. For this reason, it is often used for the hilt fittings for modern swords, both production and custom.

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