BattleCraft: How Swords Were Made

So you’re writing a high fantasy short story about a blacksmith, hard at work at his… open pit thing, with hammer and anvil, hammering away, shaping metal into a blade. After a few sure strikes on the soft metal, he shoves it into a barrel of water and the metal sizzles as it cools. Right? Wrong. We all like stories that start with these sword makers, but without correct details about the occupation and the process, you lose credibility as a writer and ruin the story.

This is a modern replica of a blade blank

Where more common place tools like axes and knives could be forged by most metal workers, a sword required someone with more expertise. Knowledge of steel, a harder form of the iron most smiths worked with, was crucial to these bladesmiths. A sword had to be strong enough to stand the strain of being crashed against other metals but flexible enough to bend under that impact and then bend back. A lot of sword crafting was an art in Medieval and Renaissance times for a number of reasons. Because there were no set mixtures of metals that went into making swords—and indeed no standardization for even the same types of metals that went into the sword—each one was unique, and a swordsmith had to have an eye for how much to heat the metal. Because each bladesmith functioned on what his master had taught him and his own acquired knowledge, nobles who fought with these swords would often go back to the smiths with how certain blades did in battle. This flow of information might change the way a smith worked the metal. Further, no one yet understood the science behind what they were doing. For instance, when a smith is tempering a blade, he is in essence re-arranging the molecules of the metal into a softer, more flexible form that lends the newly forged blade strength. The swordsmith actually working the metal though only knows what color the metal should be while he works it, and that a careful use of a low heat over time forges a better blade.

The production of a sword was a long and drawn out process, and likely conducted by a varied group of people rather than the lone smith. The bladesmith would begin by obtaining good quality steel, sometimes smelting iron themselves. They would then begin to form the blade blank, heating the iron in the furnace to the desired hue, and working it with the hammer. By the time the blank leaves the bladesmith’s hands, it’s crude and fragile. A heat-treater would then quench the blade quickly in water or oil to harden the steel. Once quenched, the metal would then be tempered—heated up slowly at low temperature and honed further into a sword-like shape. A blade grinder would then bring the blank to its final desired shape, sharpening as needed.

No matter how masterfully forged a blade is however, it’s useless without a hilt. Consisting of a pummel, grip and guard, the hilt was the work of a cutler, who would do custom work on each blade. The hilts were often designed with larger piece of wood or metal worked cold, and then heated together as one for a strong, solid finish. Once the hilt was firmly attached, the blade would be oiled and polished.

Finally a scabbardmaker would be enlisted to design a custom scabbard for each blade. Combining the skills of a leatherworker, jeweler and metalsmith, a scabbardmaker was entrusted with designing a case that was flexible, durable and light. Because swords were often status symbols as much as killing tools though, scabbards ere decorated to reflect the wearer’s personal tastes or complement the sword.

Fun Facts

  • During the beginning stages of a blade’s formation, smiths would meld together different metals.  Softer ones would be used for the core, while harder metals would coat it to form the sharp edges, so that the blade would flex under pressure but resist deformation.
  • Molten metal was not poured into molds to form the blade.
  • The tang of a blade is the unseen rod in the center that runs from tip to hilt, and that the hilt is actually wrapped around.
  • The pommel of the sword is the ball-shaped weight at the end, designed to balance out the blade. This is where the phrase, “I’m going to pommel you,” comes from.
  • Most swords during the Medieval and Renaissance ages weighed no more than 2.5-3.5lbs.


YouTube Video – How It’s Made: Albion Sword

How Were Swords Made?

How Much Did Swords Weigh?


10 thoughts on “BattleCraft: How Swords Were Made

  1. Dear Whitney,

    Very nice article. Nothing causes me to put a book down faster than inaccuracies in technical details. And saying it was magic just won’t cut it.



  2. Whitney,

    I too enjoyed your article. Sword making and metallurgy are very important components of my present projects. I presently own two Albion Armory blades and find the company to be one of the most authentic of reproduction-ists. If I may, however, nothing is more fascinating to me than modern blades made using old fashioned methods rather than modern, albeit serious, methods. In keeping with that, I’d like to refer you to a vid and a site that you might find interesting. Both are also in keeping with your earlier “Developing Sources of Inspiration” article.

    The following link features a NOVA episode on Japanese sword making, which, as I’m sure you know, is different from the European model. I particularly enjoyed the creation of the special iron used in the process.

    The second link is to one of my favorite sword makers, Jake Powning. He is a true master of hand forged swords in the western tradition. They are beautiful works of art that are truly inspiring.

    Keep up the good work.
    Your servant,

    • Wow… I’m only half way through the video, but I’m so glad you posted the link! Something like this was what I was looking for to post within my article. Completely captivating! I’m also perusing the second site you gave me as well. Thanks for the input, and looking forward to following your blog. 🙂

  3. Fascinating stuff! My writing has so far avoided necessitating scenes detailing a sword’s creation, but if it ever comes up, I’ll be *doubly*-glad I read this. (:

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