Steel alloys and what makes a good sword

Why is it that people are so incredibly fixated on steel type? I just had a lengthy discussion with a guy on why I was using the steel I use and not what he thought best, etc. You all know, there are ENDLESS discussions on what‘s the best possible sword or knife steel and incredibly, people never seem to get bored of that.
„That steel has just a little bit more carbon but that one has vanadium and did you see that test over bladeforums, they hacked chain apart and steel xy totally blew the other steels out of the water, it had one nick less in the end and resharpening was 5 seconds quicker…“

Let me state one thing: Yes, steel choice is something that plays a role and a combination of a good steel with the proper heat treatment is necessary for a well-performing sword but it‘s just ONE aspect of what makes a sword! And, it‘s not even the most important one!

The best steel in the world with optimal heat treatment doesn‘t mean squat if it handles with the grace of a tire iron! Or cuts with the efficiency of a baseball bat! Or is so flexible that you have no feel for pressure in the bind and every blow punches through your defensive action! Or… you get my point.
What you SHOULD be discussing is this: what requirements does a sword need to fulfill in order to function as the highly sophisticated weapon it is? The only way to answer that is to look at originals and the way swords were employed. Use of mass, blade and edge geometry, harmonic balance, behaviour in motion… those are the points that matter. Those are the points that allow a swordsman to employ his weapon in a way that is safe (for him 🙂 ) and efficient.

Steel quality and heat treat factor in at the end. As long as steel and HT are not so crappy the sword fails in the first encounter, all other factors matter so much more. I would rather have a blade made by someone who understands exactly what a sword needs to feel like but has only access to mystery steel and guesswork heat treatment (in other words: like many antiques) than a piece of super-steel, heat treated to perfection using modern equipment but made by someone with no understanding of a sword‘s intent and purpose.

Now, ideally you would have both in one, right? But please, stop obsessing on what steel and heat treat is best, just leave it to the maker to decide, that technical aspect is quite easily taken care of, especially nowadays. And, most generally used sword steels like 5160, 6150, 80CrV2, 9260, etc perform so similarly for the intents of a sword when properly heat treated that a difference is hardly noticeable.

What you should be concerned with as customers is whether your maker knows what a sword needs to feel like because that‘s something modern, easily available engineering doesn‘t help you with. That part requires studying originals and much in the same way as an auto mechanic needs to know how to drive a car does sword making require at least a solid basic understanding of how to use a sword.

To sum up: leave me alone if you want to discuss 10 different steel alloys but please, feel free to begin a conversation on proper distal taper on, say, a 30“ Langes Messer!

4 thoughts on “Steel alloys and what makes a good sword

  1. Absolutely, spot on sir thanks for putting this out. As someone who hilts rapiers there is a great deal of fine tuning that goes into making a well performing sword. Understanding the designed intent of the actual blade, how it was used, what armor it faced are far more important in these modern times, where we have access to many high performance alloys..

    Thanks again..

  2. I totally agree. I’m a former racing cyclist and we would have similar discussions about which type of steel made the best bicycle frame. Some riders were convinced that if it didn’t come from Columbus, for example, that it was garbage. The truth is, unless the framebuilder is using something fairly exotic most steels ride pretty much the same. The frame’s geometry is really what matters.

    I like your war sword! Just curious, what would a very general ballpark figure be for one of your war swords or similar? Nothing I would hold you to, just a general number were one to want to start putting some pennies away. I really want a Type XVII like the Redfern Sword in the Fitzwilliam Museum, but no one makes a true Type XVII like that one; MRL tried but totally messed up the blade profile. So, I’m just making a general inquiry. In the USA, if that matters.

    Thank you for your time!

  3. Interesting comparison with cycling… shows that this is not an unusual thing to discuss 🙂

    As for the war sword: depends on blade geometry, etc but around 3000-3500 Euros.

  4. Thanks for your comment, I completely agree. Good to know that someone also working on swords (or rapiers) has made the same observations…

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