Out of deep earth, fire, and cunning craftsmanship came the sword.

A symbol of power, wealth, and skill, it was the first weapon not to have a secondary purpose. While bows and spears could be used for hunting, the sword was only for a warrior. It began in the hands of a blacksmith as semi-refined ore and became the predominant weapon of its day. Even into more recent times, Japanese kamikaze pilots (though obviously they had no expectation of being in hand-to-hand combat) carried samurai swords with them in the cockpit. How did the sword leave such an impression on society as a weapon of prestige? Partly it was because of the work involved in making a good sword.

Slag is what the impurities of iron ore are called. The more slag the smith extracted, the higher quality of iron (or steel, if there was enough carbon) he made. What was left was called the bloomery mass. Taking the bloomery mass, the blacksmith would then begin folding and stretching, which is exactly what it sounds like – folding the red-hot metal over itself and stretching it out again. However, if the smith folded the metal over too many times, the blade would become brittle. If he had not folded it enough, it would be weak in places and unyielding in others. The best blades had a “watered” look to them (watered is a term describing the appearance of a blade with the high-grade steel mixed sufficiently but not too much. Ten-fold was traditionally the number used).

At that point, the metal still had no blade-shape whatsoever. This was the next step. Heating and hammering were the main steps in this part of the process. Plunging it into a tank of fluid cooled the blade. The cooling was known as quenching. If the blade was quenched too quickly, it shattered, while if it was quenched too slowly, it became weak. The exact fluid and temperature used to quench the sword were the greatest secrets of a smith, and jealously guarded. Japanese legend tells of a smith who put his hand into another smith’s tank to test the temperature—and lost his hand and therefore his livelihood for it.

Next was grinding; this critical step was where the sword gained balance and an edge. Too much weight at the tip of the blade slowed the sword, and too little made it ineffective, causing the swordsman to overcompensate and perhaps lose his life. Balance was key to the way the sword handled. This was also the step in which the smith made the blade taper. This taper, if correctly done, allowed the blade to flex without breaking.

The lighter the blade, the better. Weight was no advantage – swords relied on edge and handling rather than the force of the blow. To have balance, the pommel (butt of the sword) needed to weigh at least twice as much as the blade itself. The pommel itself could also be used as a weapon, weighing as much as it did. The term pummeling comes from the way a pommel was used in close combat.

As important as the pommel was the hilt, the place where the warrior gripped the sword. If the hilt was too big, it was difficult to keep a good hold on the sword. On the other hand, a too-small hilt made the swordsman’s hand like a fist – that position was a sure way to injure the hand. Ideally, the hilt was fitted to the swordsman’s hand. Also, the hilt was generally decorative. Often the smith had no part in making the hilt; he would give the new-forged blade over to a hilt-maker, who fashioned the hilt. Sometimes wood, leather, and gems were all incorporated in a hilt. Therefore, several people, all with different skills, had a hand in making the hilt.

The guard was part of the hilt. It kept the swordsman’s hand from slipping onto the blade and helped keep the enemy’s weapon (whether it be a shield used as a club, or another sword) from the vital fingers.

Due to the detailed and expensive nature of the process, swords were costly: the weapon of a nobleman or professional soldier. Often they were heirlooms and symbols of power. Rarely was there a famous warrior whose sword is unnamed. Ritually a vanquished fighter would surrender his sword, showing his submission in the plainest way he knew how: by giving up his prized weapon.

The sword has played an important part in history, and continues to fascinate people all over the world even today.

References:

“By the Sword”
Article on www.lordoftherings.net

Researched by Gloriel_Sindar