Steel is strong, but flesh is stronger...
May 7, 2010 2:51 PM   Subscribe

Could we make better swords today?

The art of making Japanese swords is generally viewed as having its high point around the 16th century. There are current Japanese swordsmiths using the same techniques, but in discussions I've been told that they view themselves (perhaps with false humility) as vastly inferior compared to the great smiths of the past.

Likewise, the watered or Damascus steel of the 11th to 17th centuries is considered one of the peaks of Western swordmaking, and that technique has been lost.

However, we know a lot more about metallurgy and working with metals in general today, so (cost being no object) could we make better swords today than were made in the past? What would make such a contemporary sword better? I presume that better alloys are available--imagine a titanium longsword, for example. I would think that we could make lighter, stronger, more flexible swords that hold an edge better. I'm talking about swords to be actually used in combat.

There's a thriving craft sword industry these days. How do the best artisan-produced swords of today compare?
posted by fatbird to Technology (21 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The Discovery Channel show Weapon Masters explored this territory, including making weapons with modern techniques.

The short answer was yes and no. Yes, you'd have modern tools and much, much better consistency. No, because ancient swordmakers closely guarded their formulas, so there may have been some secret sauce involved which we haven't really explored.

But ... as a for example, modern jet engine turbofans use blades out of single crystals of superalloys.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:08 PM on May 7, 2010

Dunno if this is what you have in mind, but, when it comes to dipping swords in horrible nightmarish poisons, we probably have a lot more options than Claudius did.
posted by box at 3:12 PM on May 7, 2010

However, we know a lot more about metallurgy and working with metals in general today, so (cost being no object) could we make better swords today than were made in the past?

Absolutely, without question. A well-crafted sword made with modern alloys would be far better than anything made in the past. You pointed out the advantages already; you could make a sword with modern materials that would be some combination of lighter, stronger, and better able to hold an edge.

Titanium probably wouldn't be a good choice for a sword. It would be light, sure, but a good steel sword would probably gouge chunks out of the blade since titanium is much more malleable. Or is it ductile? I forget, it's been forever. In any case a good steel blade would hack it up.

My non-expert guess is that you'd be hard pressed to come up with a better material than common modern steel allows we already use in blades. We might not engage in many swordfights but the qualities you look for in a combat sword are similar to the ones you want in a tactical or hunting knife. Hell, I would bet a sword made out of bog-standard 440 steel is better than the great majority of old swords, though maybe not the very best.

We don't use exotic metals and alloys in our knives and cutlery today not necessarily because of the cost but because modern steel alloys are just damn good.
posted by Justinian at 3:20 PM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

No, because ancient swordmakers closely guarded their formulas, so there may have been some secret sauce involved which we haven't really explored.

Bah, that's pseudo-mystical sword fetishist nonsense. Your ancient swordmaster can use all the secret juju he wants and my well-made modern steel blade will break his like he was the greenest of green apprentices and leave him crying over the pieces.
posted by Justinian at 3:22 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: How do modern steel alloys compare to the steel of 500 years ago? Is it better mixtures, or just better quality control?
posted by fatbird at 3:24 PM on May 7, 2010

Steels are incredibly complex, more complex than you can imagine. Seriously. Steel experts have an inhuman amount of knowledge. The different alloys we can mix out of them, and how we control their internal molecular structure means we can do some incredible things with the stuff. Look at all the steel-based machining parts -- high-speed steel is designed in a very specific way so that its failure mode is well known.

I'm just taking a wild guess, but my money is on today's tech. If you actually put together a team of steel experts, you can make some unbelievably strong swords.

Then there's the non-steel options, like tungsten carbide. If you were able to fashion a sword out of that, there's no doubt it would slice through the best ancient swords like melted butter.
posted by spiderskull at 3:36 PM on May 7, 2010

Best answer: Ugh, my father is the metallurgist. My understanding is that early and mid medieval European ironworking was often crappy (relatively speaking) for both material and process reasons. They didn't have a lot of the modern techniques and they often had inferior iron ore to work with which had lots of not-good impurities. There was better quality iron ore available from certain areas but it was expensive. I don't know enough about metalworking to give you good info on how this applies to late-middle age and Renaissance steel. I know they had more modern processes but I think their materials still weren't great.

But some materials and processes were better than others. I believe modern thought on much-prized Damascus Steel leans towards the idea that it has to do with the iron ore you start with. It had impurities... but they were good impurities like vanadium so it was a happy accident that it resulted in a better blade. But my understanding is that this is empirical based on the fact that some modern metal guys have managed to "recreate" what appears for all intents and purposes to be Damascus Steel by starting with such ore. We don't actually know for certain if they are correct because the process was lost a few hundred years ago.

So you'd need to talk to an expert or a metallurgist for more. I'd recommend that before talking to a swordsmith because you'll risk getting a bunch of superstition or pseuo-mysticism with a patina of science on top of it. I don't mean that as a big criticism, it's just... well you know how some people get about swords and knives and such. But I don't believe there's much question that a well-crafted sword made out of the proper modern steel alloy (and I believe steel is still your best bet) would be noticeably better than even very good swords from the past.

A sword made of a more exotic material is cool to think about but it's hard to come up with a better choice than steel. A lot of the metals you'd first think of to make a light but strong weapon would be gouged too easily by steel.

I'm assuming you're talking about something you could realistically actually have done. Aluminum, titanium, steel, etc. Because if you went really exotic I'm sure there are materials you could make a blade out of that would seem near-magical to an ancient swordsmith. Single-lattice carbon nanotube? That would be crazy.
posted by Justinian at 3:56 PM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Alloying metals can drastically change the properties of steel. Metallurgists use a bewildering array of different metals in varying quantities to modify the properties of modern steel.

Ancient sword makers didn't know about things like chromium or vanadium or tungsten.

A different point: ancient sword makers didn't have the ability to melt steel. Modern steel would be melted, cast, and then worked. Which means the metal would be consistent.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:59 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Tungsten carbide has a lot of really great properties for a sword... but it's also brittle and heavy. It doesn't matter how hard your sword is if it shatters.
posted by Justinian at 4:03 PM on May 7, 2010

I would imagine that one could make a pretty keen blade using LiquidMetal. If I recall correctly from the first article I read about this amorphous metal, they had to use it in conjunction with regular, crystalline metal to make it less brittle.

It's interesting to note that the imperfections caused by the "grains" in crystalline metals can be mechanically removed. According to that Wikipedia article, that's what the folding technique of the Japanese swordsmiths is all about.
posted by HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal at 4:44 PM on May 7, 2010

Best answer: historical blades are very uneven in quality, iron was not easy to produce and getting good steel was pretty much a lucky accident for most smiths. The japanese blades are considered superior mostly through the incrediable labor that went into the quality control. The method of folding the steel over to produce the blade shape tended to homogenize the material and press out any impurities. The blades also were kinda brittle, at least on the cutting edge.

There actually quite a few modern bladesmiths out there that produce very good work, and much cheaper than any historical productions. Blades were for the wealthy, now 1000 US will buy you a very good sword. I have a bastard sword that is very serviceable and will chop the limbs off of a pinyon pine with ease (i really don't want to test it on anything living and pig carcasses are really expensive for this) with no ill effects to the blade, i picked it up for 300. It is not all the well balanced and the hilt is not fancy but it does work and is probably better than 95% of historical blades. 1095 chrome moly (i think) is about the best modern steel ( I think this what most bike frames are made out of also...). You want toughness and a high yeild strength, not hardness on a sword. The blade must flex and return to true and maintain a decent convex cutting edge, a hollow ground blade is too thin to hold up to impact. Razor sharpness is not really required, although it can be achieved with a decent amount of skill and time in this steel.

As for modern smiths and sources for swords, Micheal Tinker is about the best that I know of, but the general blades from musuem replicas or cas iberia are not horrible. The stuff most modern knife stores carry is junk. If there is a major SCA (society for creative anachronism) close by to you there will be a wealth of sword vendors there, and most are costume blades but the good ones will stand out as soon as you pick them up.
posted by bartonlong at 4:51 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

BTW you would not cast a blade, casting are brittle. you would forge from a cold rolled blank or you would grind from the same if it was already tempered.
posted by bartonlong at 4:52 PM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For an example of the amazing superiority of modern mass-produced metallurgy over even the finest hand-crafted blades of old, take a look at the properties of any regular FIE-standard fencing blade.
Despite these blades being thinner and lighter and quicker than even the thinnest, lightest, quickest blades of old, the maraging metal is utterly unbreakable. The only way you can ever break these things is by repeatedly bending them (already beyond the breaking point of old swords) thousands and thousands of times until over time you can accumulate enough metal fatigue to weaken the metal. (For an active competitive fencer, this usually takes months or years of constant use at a rate of abuse far beyond what traditional swords were subject too.)

I saw one of these once that a guy had been carrying while cycling home - he got it caught in the wheel while travelling at a good clip. The wheel was wrecked, and the blade was wrapped around the axle twice - and it didn't break!
That was impressive. What blew our minds was that he managed to straighten out the blade, and it was still perfectly usable. So he continued to use it as if nothing had happened.

The metal used for these is not something you'd make razor blades or chef's knifes out of, as we have advanced metals that will hold that kind of superfine edge much better, but I imagine for something to use in combat, either the metal would suffice on it's own, or the edge could be made metallurgically different, a modern update on the old soft-core-hard-skin approach (such as you'd see in the samurai blades).
posted by -harlequin- at 9:16 PM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just as a side note, different swords and sword styles have very big differences in requirement. It's not uncommon in Japanese styles that the swords were not meant to cross, and thus the sword-makers are less worried about hard impacts than they are about being as sharp as possible.
posted by P.o.B. at 9:21 PM on May 7, 2010

Google around for a place that sells tool steel and you'll get an idea of what a medieval sword maker would be up against. If I were making a blacksmithing tool - something that's going to get beat on again and again, I'd want to use S7 since it's designed to be shock resistant (but it ain't cheap). For a woodworking tool 01 and A2 seem to be the popular choices. A10 is good if you're going to be machining your blade rather than forging it.

Also, what swords are you talking about from back in the day. Much as with armor, there is what the Earl of Warwick wore and carried, then there was the munition grade stuff that professional men at arms used ,and then there is the hastily converted agricultural stuff that peasant levy carried. Huge differences in quality there.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:36 PM on May 7, 2010

Best answer: I would also suggest that swordfighting techniques were built on (among other things) the available properties of the weapons, and the techniques evolved alongside the evolving metallurgy. From gladius to broadsword to sabre, military technology (among other things) dictated military technique.

Metallurgy has evolved so much since then that a modern sword - and the techniques it enables - might be all but unrecognisable. In a "Dune" or "Amber" world (modern tech but swords used instead of guns) for all we know, it might be some weird hollywood-esque hollow metal whip that can flick and snake around defences leaving neurotoxin-laced punctures. I mean... what is a sword? How much can a sword evolve before we decide it's no-longer a sword?

We could make the swords of the past and do it better than the masters of those times, but then we end up with a sword that doesn't match the use it was put to - because the usage was based on the limits of the sword, which we've altered. To exaggerate, it's like people of the future building a copy of an F-18 fighter jet, but pilotless and made out of diamond and able to pull 50 G's and fly at mach 6. And then flying it as if it could only turn at 7 G's and fly at Mach2. In what sense is it really an F-18? For what reason would you fly it as if it were an F-18?
posted by -harlequin- at 9:51 PM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

it might be some weird hollywood-esque hollow metal whip that can flick and snake around defences leaving neurotoxin-laced punctures.

Monofilament whips, John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, 1968. Dune was a couple years earlier and referenced something similar but not quite monofilament.
posted by Justinian at 11:21 PM on May 7, 2010

Oh - another demonstration of modern metallurgy - if you use a maraging metal blade against a regular steel blade, you can get sparks. That means that one of the blades is sufficiently harder than steel to be shaving particles of steel off the other blade and ignite them with the heat of the friction. You don't get sparks with regular steel on steel - that's why you use flint :)

I was fencing once, many years ago, having recently switched to a maraging metal blade, my friend was using steel, when mid-bout, sparks came off the blades! We both stopped, dumbfounded. Well, that was the end of training - being teenage boys, for the next fifteen minutes, we just stood in front of each other banging our blades together, learning the best angles and speeds to MAKE FIRE! :)
Our best spark was about a foot long. Most were more like an inch or two. (Real flint sparks easier and better, but still. It was cool :)
posted by -harlequin- at 4:32 PM on May 8, 2010

You might enjoy the New Yorker article which recently touched on these matters.
posted by unmake at 10:11 PM on May 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Actually, fun story time before this thread gets closed: this is a story from my advisor's dad, who at one point worked at a factory which worked with metals. Turns out they had an oven that would get to something like 3000+degrees Celsius. Except it opened at the top -- thus, when it was at full operation, the people who designed the oven assumed someone would open it quickly, dip whatever they needed to into this molten steel bath, then close it quickly. One of the operators failed to do this -- he instead opened it, got utterly freaked out by what was essentially a plasma bath erupting, and left the oven open. Naturally, it eventually started melting everything around it and exploded. During the explosion, some of the iron from the oven's casings fused with the molten steel. The resulting metal -- steel ingrained with long fibers and shards of iron -- was literally the strongest metal the factory had ever encountered. It broke every machining tool they used on these chunks of iron-steel, and after sending it to a specialist for analysis, they discovered that the explosion caused the grain of the steel and iron to fuse in a way that made it as strong as it was.

Now, if we could make a sword out of that, there wouldn't be an ancient (or modern, for that matter) sword out there that could stand a chance. Not a single one.
posted by spiderskull at 2:06 AM on May 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

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