Iron Age sword

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19th century illustration of Hallstatt swords Hallstatt culture swords ramsauer.jpg
19th century illustration of Hallstatt swords

Swords made of iron (as opposed to bronze) appear from the Early Iron Age (c. 12th century BC),[ citation needed ] but do not become widespread before the 8th century BC.


Early Iron Age swords were significantly different from later steel swords. They were work-hardened, rather than quench-hardened, which made them about the same or only slightly better in terms of strength and hardness to earlier bronze swords. This meant that they could still be bent out of shape during use. The easier production, however, and the greater availability of the raw material allowed for much larger scale production.

Eventually smiths learned of processes to refine smelted iron and make steel. By quenching (making the steel hard and brittle) and tempering (removing the brittleness), swords could be made that would suffer much less damage, and would spring back into shape if bent. It took a long time, however, before this was done consistently, and even until the end of the early medieval period, many swords were still unhardened iron. Several different methods of swordmaking existed in ancient times, including, most famously, pattern welding. [1] [2] [3] Over time, different methods developed all over the world.


The Celtic Hallstatt culture – 8th century BC – figured among the early users of iron. During the Hallstatt period, the same swords were made both in bronze and in iron. At the end of the Hallstatt period, around 600–500BC, swords were replaced with short daggers. The La Tene culture reintroduced the sword, which was very different from the traditional shape and construction of the Bronze Age and early Iron Age, and much more like the later swords that developed from them [source?].

The iron version of the Scythian/Persian Acinaces appears from ca. the 6th century BC. In Classical Antiquity and the Parthian and Sassanid Empires in Iran, iron swords were common. The Greek xiphos and the Roman gladius are typical examples of the type, measuring some 60 to 70 cm. The late Roman Empire introduced the longer spatha (the term for its wielder, spatharius, became a court rank in Constantinople).

Chinese steel swords make their appearance from the 5th century BC Warring States period, although earlier iron swords are also known from the Zhou dynasty. The Chinese Dao (刀 pinyin dāo) is single-edged, sometimes translated as sabre or broadsword, and the Jian (劍 pinyin jiàn) double edged.


Celtiberian swords with antennas, National Archaeological Museum (Madrid) Antenna sword.jpg
Celtiberian swords with antennas, National Archaeological Museum (Madrid)

With the spread of the La Tene culture at the 5th century BC, iron swords had completely replaced bronze all over Europe. These swords eventually evolved into, among others, the Roman gladius and spatha, and the Greek xiphos and the Germanic sword of the Roman Iron Age, which evolved into the Viking sword in the 8th century.

There are two kinds of Celtic sword. The most common is the "long" sword, which usually has a stylised anthropomorphic hilt made from organic material, such as wood, bone, or horn. These swords also usually had an iron plate in front of the guard that was shaped to match the scabbard mouth. The second type is a "short" sword with either an abstract or a true anthropomorphic hilt of copper alloy.

Scabbards were generally made from two plates of iron, and suspended from a belt made of iron links. Some scabbards had front plates of bronze rather than iron. This was more common on Insular examples than elsewhere; only a very few Continental examples are known.

Steppe cultures

Swords with ring-shaped pommels were popular among the Sarmatians from the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD. They were about 50–60 cm in length, with a rarer "long" type in excess of 70 cm, in exceptional cases as long as 130 cm. A semi-precious stone was sometimes set in the pommel ring. These swords are found in great quantities in the Black Sea region and the Hungarian plain. They are similar to the akinakes used by the Persians and other Iranian peoples. The pommel ring probably evolves by closing the earlier arc-shaped pommel hilt which evolves out of the antenna type around the 4th century BC. [4]


Polybius (2.33) reports that the Gauls at the Battle of Telamon (224 BC) had inferior iron swords which bent at the first stroke and had to be straightened with the foot against the ground. Plutarch, in his life of Marcus Furius Camillus, likewise reports on the inferiority of Gaulish iron, making the same claim that their swords bent easily. These reports have puzzled some historians, since by that time the Celts had a centuries long tradition of iron workmanship. [5] In 1906 a scholar suggested that the Greek observers misunderstood ritual acts of sword-bending, which may have served to "decommission" the weapon. [6] Such bent swords have been found among deposits of objects presumably dedicated for sacred purposes. The speculation has been repeated since. [5] Radomir Pleiner, however, argues that "the metallographic evidence shows that Polybius was right up to a point. To judge from the swords examined in this survey, only one third could be described as conforming to the quality which he ascribed generally to Celtic swords. Even so, it is quite possible that even some of the better quality swords would have failed in battle." [6] Nevertheless, he argues that the classical sources are exaggerated. Plutarch's claim that Celtic swords would bend completely back is implausible, as only a slight bending would be likely. [6] Pleiner also notes that metallurgical analysis performed on Celtic swords suggests that they were only work hardened and only very few were quench hardened, even though they frequently contain enough carbon to be hardened (in particular the swords made from Noric steel). Quench hardening takes the full advantage of the potential hardness of the steel, but leaves it brittle, prone to breaking. Quite probably this is because tempering wasn't known. Tempering is heating the steel at a lower temperature after quenching to remove the brittleness, while keeping most of the hardness.

There is other evidence of long-bladed swords bending during battle from later periods. The Icelandic Eyrbyggja saga , [7] describes a warrior straightening his twisted sword underfoot in a manner similar to Polybius's account: "whenever he struck a shield, his ornamented sword would bend, and he had to put his foot on it to straighten it out". [8] [9] Peirce and Oakeshott in Swords of the Viking Age note that the potential for bending may have been built in to avoid shattering, writing that "a bending failure offers a better chance of survival for the sword's wielder than the breaking of the blade...there was a need to build a fail-safe into the construction of a sword to favor bending over breaking". [10]

See also

Related Research Articles

Pattern welding Swordmaking technique

Pattern welding is the practice in sword and knife making of forming a blade of several metal pieces of differing composition that are forge-welded together and twisted and manipulated to form a pattern. Often mistakenly called Damascus steel, blades forged in this manner often display bands of slightly different patterning along their entire length. These bands can be highlighted for cosmetic purposes by proper polishing or acid etching. Pattern welding was an outgrowth of laminated or piled steel, a similar technique used to combine steels of different carbon contents, providing a desired mix of hardness and toughness. Although modern steelmaking processes negate the need to blend different steels, pattern welded steel is still used by custom knifemakers for the cosmetic effects it produces.

A sword is a bladed melee weapon intended for cutting or thrusting that is longer than a knife or dagger, consisting of a long blade attached to a hilt. The precise definition of the term varies with the historical epoch or the geographic region under consideration. The blade can be straight or curved. Thrusting swords have a pointed tip on the blade, and tend to be straighter; slashing swords have a sharpened cutting edge on one or both sides of the blade, and are more likely to be curved. Many swords are designed for both thrusting and slashing.

<i>Gladius</i> Type of Sword

Gladius is a Latin word meaning "sword", but in its narrow sense, it refers to the sword of Ancient Roman foot soldiers. Early ancient Roman swords were similar to those of the Greeks, called xiphe. From the 3rd century BC, however, the Romans adopted a sword based on the one used by the Celtiberians in Hispania late into the Punic Wars, known in Latin as the gladius hispaniensis, or "Hispanic sword".


A blacksmith is a metalsmith who creates objects from wrought iron or steel by forging the metal, using tools to hammer, bend, and cut. Blacksmiths produce objects such as gates, grilles, railings, light fixtures, furniture, sculpture, tools, agricultural implements, decorative and religious items, cooking utensils, and weapons. There was an historical opposition between the heavy work of the blacksmith and the more delicate operation of a whitesmith, who usually worked in gold, silver, pewter, or the finishing steps of fine steel. The place where a blacksmith works is called variously a smithy, a forge or a blacksmith's shop.

The spatha was a type of straight and long sword, measuring between 0.5 and 1 m, with a handle length between 18 and 20 cm, in use in the territory of the Roman Empire during the 1st to 6th centuries AD. Later swords, from the 7th to 10th centuries, like the Viking swords, are recognizable derivatives and sometimes subsumed under the term spatha.

Bulat is a type of steel alloy known in Russia from medieval times; it was regularly mentioned in Russian legends as the material of choice for cold steel. The name булат is a Russian transliteration of the Persian word fulad, meaning steel. This type of steel was used by the armies of nomadic peoples. Bulat steel was the main type of steel used for swords in the armies of Genghis Khan, the great emperor of the Mongolian Empire. The technique used in making wootz steel has been lost for centuries and the bulat steel used today makes use of a more recently developed technique.

Hallstatt culture Archaeological culture in Europe

The Hallstatt culture was the predominant Western and Central European culture of Late Bronze Age from the 12th to 8th centuries BC and Early Iron Age Europe from the 8th to 6th centuries BC, developing out of the Urnfield culture of the 12th century BC and followed in much of its area by the La Tène culture. It is commonly associated with Proto-Celtic and Celtic populations in the Western Hallstatt zone and with (pre-)Illyrians in the eastern Hallstatt zone.

Kampilan Type of Sword

The kampilan is a type of single-edged sword, traditionally used by various ethnic groups in the Philippine archipelago. It has a distinct profile, with the tapered blade being much broader and thinner at the point than at its base, sometimes with a protruding spikelet along the flat side of the tip. The design of the pommel varies between ethnic groups, but it usually depicts either a bakunawa (dragon), a buaya (crocodile), a kalaw (hornbill), or a kakatua (cockatoo).

Quenching Rapid cooling of a workpiece to obtain certain material properties

In materials science, quenching is the rapid cooling of a workpiece in water, oil or air to obtain certain material properties. A type of heat treating, quenching prevents undesired low-temperature processes, such as phase transformations, from occurring. It does this by reducing the window of time during which these undesired reactions are both thermodynamically favorable, and kinetically accessible; for instance, quenching can reduce the crystal grain size of both metallic and plastic materials, increasing their hardness.

Tempering (metallurgy) Process of heat treating used to increase toughness of iron-based alloys

Tempering is a process of heat treating, which is used to increase the toughness of iron-based alloys. Tempering is usually performed after hardening, to reduce some of the excess hardness, and is done by heating the metal to some temperature below the critical point for a certain period of time, then allowing it to cool in still air. The exact temperature determines the amount of hardness removed, and depends on both the specific composition of the alloy and on the desired properties in the finished product. For instance, very hard tools are often tempered at low temperatures, while springs are tempered at much higher temperatures.

Sword making, historically, has been the work of specialized smiths or metalworkers called bladesmiths or swordsmiths. Swords have been made of different materials over the centuries, with a variety of tools and techniques. While there are many criteria for evaluating a sword, generally the four key criteria are hardness, strength, flexibility and balance. Early swords were made of copper, which bends easily. Bronze swords were stronger; by varying the amount of tin in the alloy, a smith could make various parts of the sword harder or tougher to suit the demands of combat service. The Roman gladius was an early example of swords forged from blooms of steel.

Viking sword Type of Sword

The Viking Age sword or Carolingian sword is the type of sword prevalent in Western and Northern Europe during the Early Middle Ages.

The archaeology of Northern Europe studies the prehistory of Scandinavia and the adjacent North European Plain, roughly corresponding to the territories of modern Sweden, Norway, Denmark, northern Germany, Poland and the Netherlands.

Bladesmith Person who uses an anvil and forge to make various types of blades

Bladesmithing is the art of making knives, swords, daggers and other blades using a forge, hammer, anvil, and other smithing tools. Bladesmiths employ a variety of metalworking techniques similar to those used by blacksmiths, as well as woodworking for knife and sword handles, and often leatherworking for sheaths. Bladesmithing is an art that is thousands of years old and found in cultures as diverse as China, Japan, India, Germany, Korea, the Middle East, Spain and the British Isles. As with any art shrouded in history, there are myths and misconceptions about the process. While traditionally bladesmithing referred to the manufacture of any blade by any means, the majority of contemporary craftsmen referred to as bladesmiths are those who primarily manufacture blades by means of using a forge to shape the blade as opposed to knifemakers who form blades by use of the stock removal method, although there is some overlap between both crafts.

Japanese swordsmithing

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Migration Period sword Type of Sword

The Migration Period sword was a type of sword popular during the Migration Period and the Merovingian period of European history, particularly among the Germanic peoples and was derived from the Roman era spatha. It later gave rise to the Carolingian or Viking sword type of the 8th to 11th centuries AD.

Ulfberht swords Type of medieval European sword

The Ulfberht swords are about 170 medieval swords found in Europe, dated to the 9th to 11th centuries, with blades inlaid with the inscription +VLFBERH+T or +VLFBERHT+. That word is a Frankish personal name that became the basis of a trademark of sorts, used by multiple bladesmiths for several centuries.

A laminated steel blade or piled steel is a knife, sword, or other tool blade made out of layers of differing types of steel, rather than a single homogeneous alloy. The earliest steel blades were laminated out of necessity, due to the early bloomery method of smelting iron, which made production of steel expensive and inconsistent. Laminated steel offered both a way to average out the properties of the steel, as well as a way to restrict high carbon steel to the areas that needed it most. Laminated steel blades are still produced today for specialized applications, where different requirements at different points in the blade are met by use of different alloys, forged together into a single blade.

Badik Type of Knife, Dagger

The badik or badek is a knife or dagger developed by the Bugis and Makassar people of southern Sulawesi, Indonesia.


  1. Maryon 1948.
  2. Maryon 1960a.
  3. Maryon 1960b.
  4. Richard Brzezinski, Mariusz Mielczarek, Gerry Embleton, The Sarmatians 600 BC-AD 450 (in series Men-At-Arms 373), Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2002. ISBN   978-1-84176-485-6, p. 34
  5. 1 2 Vagn Fabritius Buchwald, Iron and steel in ancient times, Kgl. Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, 2005, p.127.
  6. 1 2 3 Radomir Pleiner, The Celtic Sword, Oxford: Clarendon Press (1993), p.159; 168.
  7. R. Chartrand, Magnus Magnusson, Ian Heath, Mark Harrison, Keith Durham, The Vikings, Osprey, 2006, p.141.
  8. Hermann Pálsson, Paul Geoffrey Edwards, Eyrbyggja saga, Penguin Classics, 1989, p.117.
  9. The Saga of the Ere-Dwellers, Chapter 44 - The Battle In Swanfirth
  10. Ian G. Peirce & Ewart Oakeshott, Swords of the Viking Age, Boydell Press, 2004, p.145.