Sunday, June 19, 2011

For a Few Sword Myths More

Because my sword related posts seem to be more popular than the rest of my rambling, here's a new one! ;)

Especially popular was my list of sword mistakes artists quite often make, so this is a bit of a sequel to that. Today we'll be talking about one general art issue and two specific fun bits from my favourite movies.

1) Cracked and chipped blades

Ryan A. Span suggested this and I thank him for that - it's a good one. While I couldn't find a good representative example of this issue right now, I'm sure you've all seen this a lot. Maybe you've even drawn this way? I know I used to. ;P

Nicks and cracks are painted or drawn on sword blades to make them look used, as real objects. To make the blades seem less boring and artificial.
I would suggest learning more about how real swords change with use in the hands of a person who cares about his tools, how they're sharpened and polished. (and what else you can do to your drawing of a sword to make the boring parts more interesting)

Nicks will happen even if you're careful, but one usually tries to grind them out if they're small enough. Cracks are not good, you do not use a cracked sword. Scratches happen too and while you could polish them out, they don't really hurt the blade much.
Any reenactor, or a sword enthusiast will tell you one thing - if a sword blade has a crack in it, or a large chunk chipped off, YOU SHOULD NOT USE IT. It is most likely going to break and even if the blade bits don't hurt you while flying off, you'll end up with a broken (useless) sword.

2) Conan the Barbarian - casting of the sword.

(roughly from 1:20)

(sorry, Blogger won't let me embedd this as a video.)

It's a well known scene - Conan's father makes a sword while Conan and his mother watch. First he casts the iron in a mould cut in a stone block. Then he beats it on an anvil and reheats it a couple of times. (Mysteriously, the engraving on the blade appears before one of these reheats, but we'll not talk about that.)

Can you in fact cast an iron sword?  The answer is complicated, as always with swords.
Yes, you could do it, but it wouldn't be a good sword, if you could use it at all.

Now we see the blade is getting some treatment after the casting, so that would be ok, that would produce a sword like object indeed.

The funny bit is the casting itself.
If we agree that what was used in history was something that was proven possible and useful at the time, we should conclude that casting iron swords is unrealistic.
I'm told that casting certain parts of swords can be done - crosspieces and pommels for example.
The problem with casting iron is the temperature. Iron's melting point ranges from 1200 to 1500 degrees Celsius, depending on the amount of other metals in the alloy.

("WAIT!", I hear you say, "iron is not an alloy!" Well, yes, but a swordmaker would not usually have a chunk of pure iron to work with, nor would he want to. We could call it steel, but that's another can of worms I'm not yet ready to open)

Achieving this kind of temperature for successful casting seems to be rather difficult (for the smiths of old, of course we do cast iron nowadays).

Here's an insteresting discussion on this topic:

edit: As pointed out in the discussion - beside the temperature, other problems arise while casting iron swords. Iron swords tend to be longer and thinner - you'd need to achieve such casting technology that you'd avoid bubbles/porosity and other casting artifacts. You would also figure out a way to cast iron so that it doesn't pick up a lot of carbon. 

Bronze for example melts at about 800 degrees Celsius, depending on the tin-to-copper ratio. (copper has a higher melting point than tin)
That is why bronze swords were indeed made by casting into clay moulds.

Smiths have always had a specific status in the society - very similar to shamans and mages. Alchemy itself arose from the practice of smithing. A smith, a metal worker is able to do transmutation - to change one substance into another. To speed up a process which was believed to happen over thousands of years in the vomb of mother Earth - the purification of metals.  (the common belief from antiquity to medieval times was that metals grow in the ground - from low metals like lead into perfect metals like gold)
What else do you call someone who takes a pile of rocks, puts them in a fire, performs a lot of strange actions and transforms these rocks into a shiny sword? He's a magician.

Steel/iron swords are not usually made by casting. (I'm not aware of any instances of that, please correct me if I'm wrong in thinking this.)

Then again, it'd be kinda bogus if Conan's dad taught him the "Riddle of bronze", wouldn't it? ;P

3) 13th Warrior - The Scimitar Grinding

I love the 13th Warrior. It's one of my favourite movies ever. And I love this scene - it's funny, but it also shows Antonio Banderas' character getting some respect from his viking companions.

(from about 1:20)

(again, can't embed this video. Sorry!)

Sadly, as with the rest of the film, it's not very historically accurate.

A) He grinds the sword into something resembling a shamshir/scimitar - a curved sword we westerners associate with islamic warriors. BUT, by this time and a few hundred years later - Arabs were using straight swords - very similar to their western counterparts.

The dimensions of the sword were fantastical to begin with, real viking swords of this time were rather smallish.

B) Grinding is a useful technique which has been used in sword making and which is in fact prevalent in sword making today!

But considering the construction of viking swords of that time, grinding it down to this shape would mostly likely ruin the blade and make it near useless as a sword.

Pattern welding (often wrongly called Damascus steel) is a huge topic which could easily take a whole post to explain at least roughly, so here's a link that explains it rather well:

If you ground off the hard steel edges, you'd end up cutting with the twisted core. While I'm not sure what the exact result would be, it wouldn't be pretty I think.

That's it for today. If you have any questions, if you think I'm wrong and want me to know - the comments are right below. :)

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