I've noticed the need for this, of late.
I have begun with stealing an article on the parts of a sword wholesale from http://www.historicalweapons.com/swordparts.html . I have added my own notes in italics, and reorganized it into an easier, more sensible read.
The parts of a sword
Blade - The length of steel that forms the sword. In the construction of a sword, this and the tang MUST be a single piece. A welded tang WILL break. If the swordsman is competent, it will probably break on the very first swing.
Back - The part of the blade opposite the edge. Double-edged sword has no back. Many, many sword arts teach that parrying should be done with the back or flat of a blade. A well-celebrated hero's sword will probably be deeply battered here. A differentially hardened saber such as a Japanese katana or Korean Do will have a softer back and harder edge. More under Edge.
Edge - This is the sharpened portion of the blade. A sword may be single or double-edged. For example, a Japanese katana has a single edge but a Scottish claymore is sharpened on both sides. Swords may be either through-hardened or differentially hardened. A through-hardened blade is simpler to make, and results in a slightly softer edge. This edge wears down comparatively quickly, but is less likely to chip or shatter. A differentially hardened blade has a harder edge and a softer back, with a gradient of hardness between the two. It is a compromise between the superior flexibility of the back and the harder, more wear resistant edge, allowing for an over all sharper blade. While this sharper edge has created the mythos of the all-cutting katana, it is important to note that the edge is much more brittle, and may chip, crack, or even shatter with shocking ease.
Flat - The proper term for the expanse between the edge and back of the sword. This is where the majority of etchings lay, typically in the Forte region.
Forte' - A Renaissance term for the lower portion on a sword blade which has more control and strength and which does most of the parrying. Also called prime or fort.
Foible - A Renaissance term for the upper portion on a sword blade which is weaker (or "feeble") but has more agility and speed and which does most of the attacking.
Fuller - A shallow central-groove or channel on a blade which lightens it as well as improves strength and flex. Sometimes mistakenly called a "blood-run" or "blood-groove", it has nothing to do with blood flow, cutting power, or a blade sticking. A sword might have one, none, or several fullers running a portion of its length, on either one or both sides. Narrow deep fullers are also sometimes referred to as flukes. The opposite of a fuller is a riser, which improves rigidity. The fullers function is analagous to the spine of the human body. When a fuller is forged onto a blade it repacks the crystaline structure and forms it into a flexible spine that reduces weight and gives the sword both strength and flexibility. I have left this from the original article, I believe it to be wrong. In the majority of cases, a fuller reduces the strength of the blade, but only minimally. I have never actually seen a riser on a sword. Note, however, that it is not for blood flow!
Cross - The typically straight bar or "guard" of a Medieval sword, also called a "cross-guard". A Renaissance term for the straight or curved cross-guard was the quillons (possibly from an old French or Latin term for a type of reed). The disc shape guard of the Katana is called a Tsuba in Japanese, and Gum-Maki in Korean.
Hilt - The lower portion of a sword consisting of the cross-guard, handle/grip, and pommel (most Medieval swords have a straight cross or cruciform-hilt).
Quillions - A Renaissance term for the two cross-guards (forward and back) whether straight or curved. It is likely from an old French or Latin term for a reed. On Medieval swords the cross guard may be called simply the "cross", or just the "guard".
Grip - The handle of a sword, usually made of leather, wire, wood, bone, horn, or ivory (also, a term for the method of holding the sword).
Lower end - the tip portion of a Medieval sword
Pommel - Latin for "little apple", the counter-weight which secures the hilt to the blade and allows the hand to either rest on it or grip it. Sometimes it includes a small rivet (capstan rivet) called a pommel nut, pommel bolt, or tang nut. On some Medieval swords the pommel may be partially or fully gripped and handled. A frequent construction is for the end of the tang to be necked down, and passed through the pommel, where upon it is simply hammered flat over the pommel, effectively riveting the pommel in place. It may also be drilled and threaded, and matched thusly to the tang, but this is a more contemporary construction, as fine screw threads are very difficult to produce without modern machine tooling.
Ricasso - The dull portion of a blade just above the hilt. It is intended for wrapping the index finger around to give greater tip control (called "fingering"). Not all sword forms had ricasso. They can be found on many Bastard-swords, most cut & thrust swords and later rapiers. Those on Two-Handed swords are sometimes called a "false-grip", and usually allow the entire second hand to grip and hold on. The origin of the term is obscure. Given sufficient length of ricasso on a long enough sword, the sword may be gripped along the blade and wielded in a fashion much akin to a pike or halberd. Historically, this is most common among the Germanic people, and soldiers that mastered it were considered the elite of the Holy Roman Empire.
Shoulder - The corner portion of a sword separating the blade from the tang. This, for engineering reasons, must be a chamfered corner. An end user will, typically, only see this if he disassembles his sword.
Tang - The un-edged hidden portion or ("tongue") of a blade running through the handle and to which the pommel is attached. The place where the tang connects to the blade is called the "shoulder". A sword's tang is sometimes of a different temper than the blade itself. A full tang is preferred in European swords, while a partial tang is best for Japanese swords. The tang must be large and sturdy enough to handle the stresses of the sword being swung and striking an object. This is no mean feat. A typical European blade necks down slightly at the shoulder, and extends through the end of the pommel, while swords made in the katana(tachi) style do not neck down, and extend for roughly 75 - 90 % of the length of the hilt, which is a case attached to the tang by two pins that run through holes drilled in the tang. Frequently in the old Japanese and Korean methods, the tang is signed and dated by the forger of the blade. This is also where a European blade maker will often put his mark, unless directed otherwise. The end user will only see the tang when the sword is disassembled for maintaining.
Upper end - The hilt portion of a Medieval sword.
Waisted-grip - A specially shaped handle on some bastard or hand-and-a-half swords, consisting of a slightly wider middle and tapering towards the pommel.
Tip - The end of the sword furthest away from the hilt. Most swords taper to a point at the tip, but some blade lines are straight until the very tip. A few swords, such as a U.S. Civil War saber, are curved along their length. This curve can be deliberately introduced, such as in the European calvary saber, or the product of differential hardening, such as the katana. Perhaps the most fundamental rule of swordsmanship is 'The tip goes in the guy you're killing.' 99% of the killing with a sword is done with the last six inches of the weapon, the rest is there for tactics and defense. God help you if you've buried your sword to the hilt in someone.
Annellet/Finger-Ring - The small loops extending toward the blade from the quillions intended to protect a finger wrapped over the guard. They developed in the middle-ages and can be found on many styles of Late-Medieval swords. They are common on Renaissance cut & thrust swords and rapiers they and also small-swords. For some time they have been incorrectly called the "pas d`ane".
Compound-Hilt/Complex-Guard - A term used for the various forms of hilt found on Renaissance and some late-Medieval swords. They consist typically of finger-rings, side-rings or ports, a knuckle-bar, and counter-guard or back-guard. Swept-hilts, ring-hilts, cage-hilts, and some basket-hilts are forms of complex-guard.
End of Parts Article.
On the steel of a sword
A sword is, in essence, a three foot razor blade. This, unfortunately, is a tremendous engineering challenge. To date, mankind has discovered no better material for the sword blade than steel. Almost infinitely configurable in terms of hardness and toughness, via subtle manipulations of steel chemistry and tempering / quenching procedure, a wide range of suitable steels exist for the purpose, and a vastly wider range of unsuitable steels. Every blade is a unique compromise between the durability and hardness of the edge and the toughness of the remainder of the blade, and hardness and toughness of the steel are typically inversely proportional. Should the blade be too hard, it may shatter and splinter upon impact. Should the blade be too tough, it will simply not hold an edge, the razor-fine structure being bent and worn down impossibly quickly, or worse, gumming up the polishing stones.
Typically, a sword is a high carbon steel, tempered and quenched for an optimum blend of toughness and hardness. The modern AISI grades 1045, 1060, 9260 and L6 are considered to be optimal, and, believe it or not, a leaf spring from a car manufactured in the late 80's or early 90's can often be turned into a beautiful and effective blade, being made of 9260.
Remarkable steels of the past include wootz or Damascus steel, which is noted for the unique patterns visible upon the polished blade, and which has an exceptionally high level of very fine iron carbides, providing an extremely hard, but surprisingly tough cutting edge. Also notable is the tamahagane steel of japan, used by swordsmiths - While this steel is not exceptionally better than alloys from the European Bessemer process or open hearth process, it is most remarkable not for its properties, but for the simple fact that ore it comes from is considered to be one of the poorest iron sources in the world. Though inefficient, the process is the engineering equivalent of using a thimble, a magnifying glass, drinking straws, and two dixie cups to produce potable water from the Hudson Bay. That it functions at all is a triumph of human brilliance on par with the construction of the Giza pyramids.
Bronze, too, can be made into a fine blade, though tempering is of lesser effect in Bronze. Instead, the Copper - Tin ratio is controlled, and the near-finished blade may be "work hardened", that is, simply beaten with a hammer until it becomes harder, after which the final polish is applied. One notable peak of bronze sword technology can be found in the Chinese Jian, which was often a composite of softer bronze wrapped around a hard core. The final polish exposed the hard core at the edge, resulting in a 3-layered, reinforced construction referred to as sanmei. This method was later applied to steels as well.
What cannot, reasonably, be turned into an effective blade are the following materials:
Stainless Steel - Too brittle. While stainless is fine for a six inch knife, bread knife, a sword can be expected to be exposed to hundreds of times the force s a knife will be. Thousands, if batto-jutsu are practiced.
Aluminum - Too soft.
Diamond - Too brittle! Diamond has very low tensile strength, and cleaves with ease. Same with most other gem stones.
Glass - Too brittle.
Most Ceramics - Again, too brittle. Some rare cermets are theoretically possible, but most are also insufficiently tough.
Stone - Too brittle.
Depleted Uranium - Too heavy, too poisonous, too flammable, nasty habit of shearing away!
Tungsten - Too heavy, too soft, exceedingly difficult to shape.
Nickel & Cobalt - Poor quenching routines make this most difficult to deal with. Carbide systems are significantly different from iron. Some cobalt alloys are similar to Damascus steel, in theory, but are hard to create even in modern laboratories. Nickel superalloys are similarly intractable.
Titanium - Titanium would make a great sword, except it's a little too light and, well, you've got to make it. I have seen brilliant men driven mad trying to shape titanium.
On the edge of a sword
Perhaps the most dramatic part of sword-fighting on the silver screen and upon the stage is the spark-flashing, edge -on-edge clash. It is a thing of apparent awe to behold. Unfortunately, to the eye of any trained swordsman or metalsmith, it is, instead, a thing of awesome terror, for there is no quicker way to destroy a blade. Each and every spark that flies is the chipping or spalling of the edge of the blade as the ultra-thin, exceptionally brittle cutting edges slam into each other. Each chip, each spall, each micro-crack then becomes a stress concentration that can eventually lead to the blade snapping, or even shattering, unless properly polished out.
This effect is only exacerbated by harder, more brittle materials, which is why many of the material above are unusable. Perhaps the easiest available example is the modern safety-razor blade or box-cutter blade. With appropriate(And SIGNIFICANT) safety precautions, they can provide a magnificent demonstration of the fragility of a cutting edge, be it by pressing them together or simply torsioning them. Don't try this one at home without help from a professional, kiddos.
A GM that is keen on the consequences of actions should not be afraid to allow an adventurer to break his sword - There are reasons many real warriors chose to carry multiple swords, and it was rarely to wield two at once.
Will you need most of this in a typical game? No. Can really understanding a sword put a fresh sheen on the Old Standby of adventurers? Yes. These are the little details that the devil doth lie in.
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? Responses (15)-15
Nicely done! I've done some research into blades and whatnot (with a major focus on katanas) due to a school project, but this definitely makes for a good primer for an aspiring blacksmith. Go Siren!
Very detailed and well done.
Thought I knew plenty about swords already...now I more plenty more. Great addition to the ol' GM binder.
A solid resource, Siren! I know this is supposed to be a dry article to be used on its own, but I couldn't help but notice a plot-hook right away. :p
"... the blade and the tang MUST be a single piece. A welded tang WILL break. If the swordsman is competent, it will probably break on the very first swing."
- now let's say that someone produced a heap of such swords, and smuggled them to an important army unit shortly before the battle. Would that called be a sabotage, or what?
Updated: Updated: Added: Notable steels. Bronze. On the Edge.
An excellent and very informative article.
Maybe *one use* swords could be made of glass.
I'm afraid that would be *one hit* swords only.
If you really want to use glass, you're best off using it for things like arrowheads you don't worry about retrieving. Even tempered glass can be amazingly fragile and prone to fracturing along weird stress points.
(Link to the Longbows article, just for the sake of it, where glass arrowheads are discussed.)
Useful functional and helpful article. Take a bow SnO
Well done indeed!
Excellent work. I always like to drop in some "real" information in my sessions, encapsulated in the fiction and fantasy. Submissions like these are just wonderful and certainly saves me digesting netwash and looking it up myself. Hadn't thought of describing a sword in this detail in an encounter before, but me thinks I will shortly ;)
This is spectacular. As a stickler for details myself, this is a fantastic resource. I even learned a handful of things about swords I didn't already know! 5