The work of sword-making was a specialized art in the middle ages. To make a good sword, the swordsmith, also known as a blacksmith, had to have a lot of experience or training. Without a strong, flexible sword, a knight would be at a disadvantage to his opponents. If his sword broke, you can be sure the swordsmith would hear about it!
The process of making a sword is fairly complicated. It starts with a certain set of requirements. How long should the sword be? How flexible? Should it have a fuller? How should it be balanced? All of these requirements are personal preference. A good sword had to be flexible so that it could take large impacts without breaking, and still remain sharp. The balance of the sword could determine whether it was used as a cutting or a thrusting sword, and the fuller kept the sword light, if that was what the swordsmith wanted.
After designing the sword, the swordsmith would select a bar of iron and set about forging it. Forging is when iron is repeatedly pounded to give it strength. Microscopically, this aligns the grain of the metal and today is often called “work hardening.” Besides strengthening the material, this forging would give the blade its basic shape.
At this point, the blade’s shape is roughly correct, but the material has been unevenly heated, and stresses may have been introduced. The blade is also too hard to work easily, so it must be annealed.
Annealing is a process that makes the metal easier to work with by heating it up and slowly cooling it down. Typically, a metal is either hard and brittle or soft and flexible. Annealing brings the blade from a brittle state to a soft state, and at the same time evens out the stresses that have introduced into the blade.
Once the metal is soft, the blade is further shaped and sharpened. Once the swordsmith is happy with the quality of the blade, he has to bring it back to a more brittle state. He does not, however, want to make the blade brittle – it must also be flexible enough to stand up to the shock of battle.
This is done by first hardening, then tempering the blade. Harding is done by a heating up the blade to an extreme temperature, then cooling it quickly. The precision of this process often determines the quality of the blade. If hardening isn’t done correctly, stresses could once again be introduced into the blade.
The blade is tempered by heating it up slowly, then cooling it. This can happen more than once before the swordsmith is happy with the blade. Tempering is one of the more crucial aspects of sword making, determining the flexibility and/or strength of the blade, and experience is key.
After the blade has been made, the hilt has to be assembled from the guard, handle, and pommel, then installed on the blade. The guard appears in early blades as a circular shape, its sole purpose being to keep the soldier’s hand from sliding up on the blade. Later, the quillon style guard was introduced, producing the classic cruciform sword. The handle was made of wood or metal, and covered with a grip of leather or wire. At the end of the sword was the pommel, which was a counterweight to aid in balancing the sword.
Once the hilt was complete, the sword needed only a scabbard. Scabbards, or sheaths, were made of a combination of wood and cloth or leather, and were intended to hold the sword to the wearer’s side, or, later, to actually protect the sword. Some archeological evidence suggests that oiled animal fur was used on the inside of scabbards to keep swords free from rust.
The gladius, a well-known Roman symbol though it may be, was not initially Roman. Its origin is in the Iberian area, or modern-day Spain. When Scipio invaded Spain, the Roman soldiers under his command came in contact with the sword, and soon the use of the gladius hispanica spread to other units in the army. Marius soon made it the standard issue Roman sword.
The Gladius was approximately 27 inches long, and is commonly split into two types. The first type, the Mainz variety, was wasp-waisted and existed during the first century BC. The second type had a straight blade and was called the Pompeii. It had a straight blade and was used after the first century AD.
With the growing Roman Empire came new people, new cultures, and new weapons. Germanic soldiers soon brought their longer swords into the mix, and in the fourth century AD the Gladius lost its place as a standard sword. It was replaced by the Spatha, a longer sword first used by the cavalry.
The name “Kopis” comes from an old greek word meaning “I cut.” In and of itself, the Kopis was not necessarily a military weapon; it was often used for cutting meat or killing animals. It was, however, used in war against infantry.
At about three feet in length, the Kopis was comparable in size to the Roman Spatha. Its unique feature was a forward-curved blade. This was a slight advantage for horsemen, who primarily used the slashing technique against infantry. Xenophon notes this in his treatise “On Horsemanship,” where he recommends the Kopis for cavalry use.
Without a doubt, the most widely known and glamorous weapon of the middle ages was the sword. The name “sword” could cover a large number of devices, from a sharp piece of metal to a finely worked arming sword with a damascened blade.
Over the years, the sword became known as a symbol of war, due to the fact that it could rarely be used for anything else. Bows, spears, and knives all had other uses, but the sword was kept sharp for times of war.