The Katana

The swordsmith Masamune forging a katana with his assitant.

The katana, a single-edged, curved blade, was the legendary sword of the samurai of Japan. Extraordinary legends have been attached to these blades, from the blood thirst of the Muramasa swords to the holy sword of Masamune, which would only harm that which was evil.

As the pattern-welded blade was rising to prominence and then being replaced by mass produced, inferior blades in Europe, a similar technology was rising in Japan. The technology was startlingly similar, yet very different. The tatara, a form of industrial smelting, was used to extract tamahagane steel and iron from the iron sands that are the main ore source in Japan.

Tamahagane is high quality steel, but the carbon content is variable. The bladesmith separated the steel into highest and lower carbon. The low carbon steel (shingane) was forged into a core and the higher carbon steel was forged into layers which were then sandwiched together around this forged core into a blade shape. The outer blade could be folded many times to form a laminated sword in which the impurities were spread evenly throughout the blade, much like in pattern-welded swords.

Between each forging the blade was coated in clay mixed with ash. This helped to draw out impurities from the steel as it was heated and burned off in the intense heat of the forge.

The skill in forging a katana lay in making certain that the soft core and laminated outer skin were correctly aligned and positioned in the finished blade. Like a pattern-welded blade this skill took a life time to master.

The katana was not heat treated in the same way as a European sword. The softness of the back of the blade was maintained by coating it in a thick layer of clay. The clay was thinned towards the blade edge. This kept the high heat that hardened the blade confined to the cutting edge, thus allowing the other parts of the blade to remain soft and springy.

Using clay could produce a blade without tempering, but usually a light temper was needed to reduce brittleness. The clay also created a beautiful wavy line down the blade (hamon). A perfect hamon was (and is) a sign of an excellent blade and acted as a mark of quality.

The forged blade was passed to the polisher who cleaned and polished the blades using decreasingly abrasive water stones. This polishing could take weeks and is itself a fine art.

The finished blade was then sent for a finely decorated handle and scabbard.

The finest Japanese swords were made by a group of skilled craftsmen. The bladesmith was a Master and directed a group of apprentices. The Master did little of the heavy work, but directed exactly. Often, he would tap the metal with a light hammer and the weight and location of the strike was duplicated by an apprentice with a larger hammer.

The master was there for his skill not his strength. Japanese Master bladesmiths achiveed mythological status and there are many folk tales that describe smiths meeting each other and holding a forging competition. For instance, Muramasa was supposed to have challenged Masamune to see who could make the better sword. Blades made, the two masters hung their swords in a stream. Muramasa’s sword sliced everything: fish, leaves, the air itself. But Masamune’s blade touched nothing. Thinking he had won, Muramasa jibed his master, until a watching monk explained that, while the first sword cut everything, the second, Masamune’s blade, was superior, since it discriminated, leaving untouched that which did not deserve to be harmed. Sadly, this wonderful tale is apocryphal: Muramasa and Masamune were separated by generations and never met. 

The 7 Steps to Forging the Perfect Sword

Step 1: Choose the Metal

The single most important aspect of a good sword was the material it was made from. It needed to be light and strong, flexible but not brittle, and capable of achieving a sharp edge and point.

Iron is soft and will not hold an edge well. Steel can be sharpened and will hold an edge, but the increase in hardness makes it much more brittle. The ideal trade off was a weapon that has a flexible iron core and a sharp steel edge welded on.

Step 2: Forging

The best swords are fusions of iron and steel and the only way to successfully put the two together is to forge them. The superheating of the metals creates thousands of tiny welds that unite them. An added bonus of forging is that any impurities in the metal are spread evenly around the blade, reducing the chances of failure through stress. This can cause the blade to bend or even snap – not good in the midst of battle. Bars of good grade iron were twisted in a regular pattern. This working further disaggregated any impurities. The bars were welded together to make a solid core and the steel edge was then welded on. 

A channel was opened around the edge of the core and the steel was welded into this. Closing the channel locked the steel into place, making a strong bond.

Step 3: Annealing

Iron and steel were hammered into a blade shape and then heated until the metal ceased to be magnetic. This made the metal soft enough to work easily for shaping.  It was essential to heat the blade along its entire length to get a uniform finish. The charcoal in the forge needed to be arranged so that the length of the blade was in maximum contact with the flames, to keep all of the blade at the same temperature. The sword had to be cooled very slowly: either the fire was allowed to cool, or the sword was buried in hot sand that retained heat.

Step 4: Grinding

A variety of methods were used to grind a blade, from water powered wheels down to sand on a piece of leather, although hand files, and  stone wheels and hones were generally used. The blade was moved through a variety of grinds, the grit gradually getting finer until the desired shape was achieved.

The main point of grinding was to remove the material that could not be easily removed by forging.

The fuller was also finished at this stage, having been forged in earlier. A fuller is often described as a blood groove and is said to allow a sword to be pulled out easily, but this is not true. The fuller lightened the blade and increased its strength.

Step 5: Hardening

The sword was reheated to a dull orange, until non magnetic. It was essential not to overheat the point and edge as carbon can easily burn out of the steel. Knowing his forge was essential for the swordsmith.

The sword was then quenched in water. A thermal jacket formed around the blade from the steam, so movement was essential to allow for a better quench. This process aligned the crystalline structure in the iron and steel and promoted grain growth.

Step 6: Tempering

The blade was brittle after hardening, so it had to be reheated precisely.  This was done using colour. Heated metal glows different colours depending on its temperature. For tempering, the swordsmith heated the blade until the edge was a straw colour and the centre, where more metal was, a deep purple. The blade was then allowed to cool slowly, thus allowing some flex back into the blade to ensure it did not snap in use.

Step 7: Completion

The blade was forged, but it looked a sorry state: dirty and blackened, so it had to be cleaned thoroughly. Abrasives were used to scour away the forge detritus. The blade was polished slowly, using gradually less coarse media. After a final sharpen, the blade was etched in a caustic medium to highlight the contrast between iron bands and steel. This created the patterning that pattern-welded sword are famous for.

The hilt of a fine sword was always on display, so jewelled, precious metal hilts with prestige materials such as exotic wood or ivory were used. The hilt was composite and the pommel and guards were adjusted to balance the blade for its owner. The scabbard was similarly made of fine wood, bound in leather and lined with sheepskin. The lanolin in the lining helped maintain the blade.

How to Make the Perfect Sword

Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

The Bamburgh Sword was far more than a weapon. It was a 7th century work of art rivalling the Lindisfarne Gospels. It was a statement of intent and an announcement of its owner as a superior warrior – and one likely to kill you.

The technology required to make the Bamburgh Sword, and similar pattern-welded weapons, was staggering. The finest bog ore was smelted to make iron and steel.

Then the iron was forged into regularly twisted bars which were welded together to form a perfect chevron pattern and the basic sword shape was formed. The very finest blades had wootz (crucible steel) added to reduce imperfections in the material.

The steel edge was welded to the core. The iron core made the sword flexible and fluid in the hand. The steel edge made the blade wickedly sharp. It was the interplay between iron and steel that was the key to the success of these magical blades.

The blade was fullered and ground to shape. The entire blade was heated and quenched several times to normalise. Then it was heated and quenched in water or brine. At this point the metal was brittle, so it was reheated to a lower temperature and allowed to cool slowly.

The final step: sharpening.

The Swordsmith

Owen Bush, bladesmith.

The Bamburgh Sword, forged in the 7th century, excavated in 1960 and rediscoverd in 2001, is possibly the finest sword ever made, being made of six strands of pattern-welded iron. An extraordinary weapon like this was the work of more than one man.

The blade, the hilt and the scabbard were made by different people, each a master of his craft. The technology that went into creating a pattern-welded sword is extremely complicated and takes a lifetime to perfect. The men who had this skill were venerated and rewarded richly. However, the technology was jealously guarded, so bladesmiths were not free to leave the king who employed them. In a time when science was a thousand years in the future, the creation of a perfect blade was a process of magic and ritual.

The very best Early Medieval blades had wootz steel (crucible steel imported from India) alloyed into the pattern welding. It raised the technology hugely.

The hilt was made up of precious metal and precious stones. Garnets were a favourite;  each one was hand shaped by cutting and laboriously polished with a mix of fat and crushed stone loaded onto a leather pad. The goldwork was extraordinary and the level of minute detail huge. How this was done without magnification is a mystery still.

A Short History of the Sword

Angampora, the Sri Lankan martial art.

The sword was the first tool made solely to kill. Other early weapons of war – bows, axes, spears – had uses outside battle but the sword was made for one reason only: to leave an enemy dead on the ground.

The first swords were made of bronze and their origin is obscure. As first essays in the craft of swordmaking, some of these original swords have unusual designs, such as the sickle-shaped khopesh buried with the pharaoh Tutankhamun. But, despite the khopesh being buried with the boy pharaoh in 1327 BC, by then, swords were already old.

Swords were first produced as status items around the Mediterranean basin, from around 3000 BC, once the alloying of bronze allowed for the creation of blades. To start with they were extraordinarily rare, highly prized and a sign of immense wealth. But as bronze technology spread, blades became more common and armies, such as that of the Minoans, were soon well enough armed to carve out an empire with these short, bronze blades.

But the arrival of iron and steel brought a revolution. Iron is strong, durable and readily available, unlike bronze (which needed tin – a relatively rare metal). Once the Hittites had demonstrated iron’s utility when carving out their empire from 1600 BC, the general adoption of iron weapons became inevitable.

In the first millennium BC, the Etruscans began to alloy iron and steel to gain better tensile strength. They made blades that had good edge strength while being flexible enough to absorb shock during combat.

The Romans used and developed Etruscan technology, combining it with carburisation (combining iron or steel with carbon to make it harder), case hardening (hard on the outside, soft within) and plain steel blades. Armed with the gladius, the short, stabbing weapon of the legionary, the Roman war machine carved out an empire. However, it was the spatha, the longer sword of the Roman cavalry, that outlived the empire. The spatha was often employed by the barbarians serving as Roman auxiliaries and, after the western Empire fell, the spatha gave rise to the Anglo-Saxon and Viking blades that are the pinnacle of western sword making.

However, the massed Viking armies of the tenth and eleventh centuries led to homogenised weapons and quality gave way to quantity. In the following centuries, the sword evolved to fit the particular fighting styles of the era.

Sword Stories

The Gladius

The gladius was a short Roman sword used for thrusting, particularly by the legions of the Republic and early Empire. Roman legionaries used it as part of the weapon set that included their scutum (shield) and pilum (javelin). The blades were steel or case-hardened iron. Very rarely the blades were composites of iron and steel. The Roman army made these in vast numbers, the work probably being commissioned to retired soldiers (gladiarii). Being mass produced, and with Roman smiths not completely understanding the properties of iron, the weapons were often of mediocre quality. But there were always replacement weapons to be had.

Anglo saxon/Viking  sword

The swords of the Anglo-Saxon and Viking eras were developed from the spatha, the long cavalry sword of the Roman auxiliary. These swords were used for hand-to-hand fighting in the melee after the shieldwall broke . The early Saxon and Viking smiths took pattern welding to dizzying new heights, making some of the finest blades ever forged.

However, with the arrival of massed Viking armies from the 10th century onwards, sword quality declined markedly. There were simply too many swords required to devote the thousands of man hours required to forge the best weapons, although the Ulfberht swords, made and signed by a family of smiths in the 9th and 10th centuries, were an exception to the trend towards mediocrity: they remain unparalleled.


The famous claymore sword was a two-handed broadsword. It was wielded mostly in Scotland during the incessant clan and border warfare between 1400 and 1700. A later weapon, a smaller basket hilted sword, also came to be known as a claymore, but this was a later sword. The terminology is confusing as is often the case with swords. But here I am talking about the early claymore.

The two-handed claymore was a constant in the medieval wars between England and Scotland, as well as being wielded in internal Scottish clan fights. Being a two-handed weapon, the claymore had a unique style of fighting associated with it, utilising the long, heavy blade, the cross guards to trap and break enemies’ blades and the heavy pommel to strike. The sword could also be easily reversed to make a very effective hooking weapon.


The rapier, a long, one-handed, thrusting weapons, was not primarily a soldier’s sword. The rapier developed in the 16th and 17th centuries largely as a civilian self-defence weapon. As such, it was a personal sword, carried every day, and one meant to be used in the brawls, fights and duels that plagued Renaissance Europe’s cities. The rapier required a fighting style based on thrusting rather than slashing – modern sport fencing styles have developed from rapier duelling.


The popular image of the sabre is a sword with a curved, single-edged blade, used by cavalrymen, in particular during the Napoleonic Wars. The image, depicted in many illustrations of the time, was of horsemen slashing with their sabres, often with devastating effect, on routing infantry formations. But in fact, Napoleonic era sabres were just as often straight blades, used for thrusting attacks by charging cavalry. The sabre remains part of the dress uniform of many military units, while modern sport sabre fencing is alone in counting slashing strokes as hits, although the sword itself is straight, not curved.

The Dane Axe

The favourite weapon of the housecarls of King Harold’s army was the Dane axe. This set them apart from their Anglo-Saxon predecessors, who had generally preferred a spear and sword weapon set. Housecarls also made use of the teardrop shaped ‘Norman’ shield much more than the traditional round Anglo-Saxon shield. As the king’s personal retinue and in common with all Anglo-Saxon warriors, housecarls fought on foot, although as high-status warriors they rode to battle, forming up as the front rank of the shield wall and the personal bodyguard of king and earls.

The Dane axe was a formidable weapon. The haft, usually between three and four feet long (although display weapons had longer hafts), was held in both hands. The axe head was relatively light and forged with a reinforced, carbon-steel cutting edge. Although it was not heavy, when swung with the axe at full extension it would build up a terrifying cutting momentum.

Wielding the Dane axe required both hands. To do so the housecarl had to step out from the line of the shieldwall. This was what produced the shift to ‘Norman’ shields. With its pointed end, the shield could be jammed in the earth in front of the housecarl, providing some protection against arrows. With both arms free, the housecarl could build momentum by swinging the Dane axe in circles. With so much stored energy, an enemy coming within cutting distance ran the risk of being cut in two. The Bayeaux Tapestry shows a housecarl cutting the head of a Norman knight’s horse in half: in the battle itself, that housecarl could probably have cut  right through the knight riding the horse as well.

Chickenshed on Britain’s Got Talent

All three of my sons have been members of Chickenshed Theatre. The youngest, Isaac, was one of the members of the Chickenshed group that appeared on Britain’s Got Talent on 22 April, receiving the golden buzzer from Alesha Dixon. Isaac is the boy with curly hair and we couldn’t be prouder of him and all the rest of the troop!

Book review: Four Princes by John Julius Norwich

Four Princes by John Julius Norwich

An enjoyable, fast-paced four pronged biographical telling of the first half of the 16th century. The titular princes included two emperors, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Suleiman, the Ottoman Sultan, as well as two kings, Francis I, King of France, and Henry VIII of England. The four men were all born within ten years of each other and their rivalries defined the new world that was breaking through the old certainties during the half century in which they held sway.

It makes for a good way to pull disparate historical threads together and their personalities are each big enough to fill books on their own (even poor Charles with his Hapsburg chin was more interesting than his detractors claim). However, in the areas in which I am knowledgeable, I did spot a couple of errors (Ibrahim did not become Suleiman’s caliph until after the siege of Rhodes in 1522 and the Italian military engineer who masterminded the Knights Hospitaller’s defences during the siege was Gabriele Tadino not Tadini), so it suggests that other details might be inaccurate too. Nevertheless, the book is a good introduction to possibly the most crucial fifty years in the last millennium.

Book review: The Wraithbone Phoenix by Alec Worley

The Wraithbone Phoenix by Alec Worley

Reading novels set in the 40k universe, you usually know what you are going to get: bolters, lasguns, big guys in armour shooting and getting shot by aliens, all limned in characteristic grimdark. It’s a winning formula. But sometimes it’s good to read something a little outside the usual tramlines, and Alec Worley’s The Wraithbone Phoenix delivers a story outside those tramlines that might just be the most purely enjoyable Warhammer 40k novel I have ever read.

That’s not to say it’s lacking in bolters, action, intrigue and a suitably grimdark setting (the hive city, Varangantua – thought: was the city inspired by Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel? 40k is full of veiled, and not so veiled, references to this world settings). Indeed, in its outline, The Wraithbone Phoenix is a classic 40k quest story, with different kill teams converging on the same prize and, well, killing each other. But what sets it so marvellously apart are its protagonists, the ratling (essentially, the 40k version of Hobbits) Baggit, and the ogryn (yep, a 40k ogre) Clodde. The odd couple is a trope of storytelling precisely because it works so well and Worley employs it like a master, setting and contrasting the personalities and physiques of Baggit and Clodde in juxtaposition to the horrible world that they are attempting to navigate their way through. I loved both characters but must proclaim a particular weakness for Clodde. Ogryns are usually big and stupid, like their folkloric predecessors, but Clodde, having been hit on the head, has become an ogryn philosopher – although no one, including himself, has noticed! It’s a marvellous touch, and helps set Clodde and Baggit in contrast to the violence and nihilism all around them in Varagantua and the wider 40k universe.

So, despite the body count, the double crosses, the general grimness of the dystopian setting, The Wraithbone Phoenix achieves the almost miraculous feat of being a genuinely joyous 40k novel. For fans of the universe, take this as a warning or an invitation, depending on your inclinations, and dive in or withdraw and find something more nihilistic instead.