Swords were the first tools designed solely to kill. There were other weapons before swords, such as spears, axes and knives, but they were all originally intended for other purposes before being adopted as instruments of war. The spear was originally made for hunting, the axe for chopping wood, while knives have many functions. But the sword exists only to kill people.
Initially, swords were as much status items as weapons. These first swords, appearing from around 3000 BCE, were forged from bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. As the technology required to forge bronze was still new, and bronze itself quite rare, these early swords were very uncommon, highly prized and a sign that the person carrying them was extraordinarily wealthy and powerful. One such example is the bronze sword, shaped like a sickle, that was buried with Tutankhamun circa 1327 BCE. Called a khopesh, the sword of the pharaoh was sharpened on its outside edge, with the tip used both as a hook and a club.
The technology to make bronze spread around the Mediterranean basin, and trade evolved to bring tin from mines in the Iberian Peninsula and Cornwall to the forges of the eastern Mediterranean. As a result, swords became more and more widespread, until whole armies carried them. The Minoan, Sumerian and Assyrian empires were all carved out by armies carrying bronze swords. But iron changed everything. The metal itself is common, strong and durable, and will produce a weapon that is both flexible and tough. The Hittites were early adopters of this technology, using iron weapons to form their empire from 1600 BCE onwards. With the Hittites showing the way, iron became the new material from which to forge swords.
The problem with iron swords, though, is that iron bends. To make a sharp, hard, cutting edge, you need steel – an alloy of iron and carbon. In the first millennium BCE, the Etruscans began to create alloys of steel and iron, making swords that had edges hard enough to cut through armour, yet which were also sufficiently flexible to withstand the shock of battle.
The Romans developed Etruscan technology, creating the blade that characterised the Roman military machine: the gladius. This short, stabbing sword was the weapon of the legionary and, armed with it, the Romans created their empire. But it was the longer sword employed by their cavalry, the spatha, that outlived Roman rule. As the Western Empire declined, many of the barbarian groups who were employed to defend it used the spatha. The weapon became the prototype from which the swords of the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, the high points of western sword making, developed.
Perhaps the finest example of these swords is the one found at Bamburgh in Northumberland. Excavated in 1960 and rediscovered in 2001 (just in time, as it was about to be thrown into a skip), the Bamburgh Sword was forged in the 7th century. About 76 centimetres long when first made, the sword was passed down through the centuries until, some 300 years after it was forged, it broke. As an heirloom of kings and earls, the sword was not thrown away, but buried, until archaeologists excavated it, although at first they did not realise what they had found.
The Bamburgh Sword was made from six strands of iron, pattern-welded together. No other sword has been found with more than four. In pattern welding, the iron strands are heated, twisted and hammered together, over and over again. When finished, pattern-welded swords have striking swirling designs on them.
It was this tell-tale pattern that led, in part, to the end of pattern-welded swords. Every warrior wanted a weapon like this and, by the later Viking Age, armies had grown to a thousand or more men. In response, crafty swordsmiths began producing fake versions of these blades, which had an ordinary iron core and a thin pattern-welded layer on top.
With the arrival of massed armies, swordsmiths started to forge simpler, easier-to- make blades. The design of the swords
continued to change through the following centuries, to suit the fighting styles of the men carrying them. Blade styles also changed as armour improved, making it harder to cut through with a sword’s edge. As a result, the point of the sword became more important, being sharpened and hardened so that it could punch a hole through an enemy’s armour. Despite bullets largely replacing blades on battlefields, swords continued to be employed by soldiers into the 20th century, being used widely during the Russian Civil War (1918-1920) and the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).
Forging the Blade
For more information about science and technology, visit our website now. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the latest digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, subscribe today!