Friday, October 7, 2011

Anatomy of the Sword

If you write any sort of story that plays off in the medieval and related times, or even in the distant future where technology had to start from scratch (think Terry Brooks’s Shannara series), at some point, there will (hopefully) be mention of a sword.  For that reason, I will elaborate on what makes a sword tick and the related terminology.

For starters, here is a handy image (from Wikipedia) that describes all the visible parts of a sword.  Know your hilt from your pommel.
Click to enlarge

(Interesting note: The fuller’s main function is to lighten the blade without losing any of its strength.  But it is also called by another name, a blood groove, because it allowed a stabbed person’s blood to flow from his wound with the sword still in it.)

Real combat swords have two main qualities that replicas lack.  First is the material used to make the sword.

At the start of swordsmithing, the people used bronze.  But after discovering iron, they realised that they could use that rather than bronze to make swords easier and in greater quantities (though iron was weaker than bronze).  After a time, they figured out that by adding a bit of carbon during the smelting process, they could make steel, a far superior metal in strength and durability (these days, it is commonly referred to as carbon steel).

Traditional swords are made of carbon steel, not stainless steel (the difference is in the chromium content).  Which means two things.  They rust if not regularly oiled and they have a dull sheen, rather than the mirror-effect of stainless steel (the part in the movies where a hero sees an enemy in the reflection of the blade is heavily exaggerated).  Carbon steel is more stiff and hard (i.e. stronger) than stainless, which is the reason it is used for swords (knives are generally made with stainless steel, because the blades are less likely to break/bend because they are so short).

Second, the tang.

The tang is the part of the blade that extends into the grip.  Many replica swords have the hilt welded onto the blade, rather than having a tang that extends into it.  A full tang means that the tang remains the same thickness as the blade, as opposed to normal tangs that thins into the grip.

A form of tang, called the rat-tailed tang, is also used and sometimes referred to as “full tang” (which in modern days may only refer to the existence of a tang whatsoever), while it is in actual fact only a thin rod welded onto the blade and extending into the grip.

If a tang is not present, or it is a rat-tailed tang, the sword can easily break at the welding point.  Therefore, good swordsmiths will always make a tang that is a part of the blade and extends into the grip, threading the end to allow a pommel to be screwed on.  (Interesting note: Japanese swordsmiths often put their mark on the tang underneath the grip.)

Now you’ll know a cross-guard from a fuller and a rat-tailed tang from a proper one.  (You’ll also be able to make better guesses at which swords are replicas.)


  1. Interesting post, especially since we're teaching the kids at my martial arts school the samurai sword (they have wooden ones, thank goodness!). That blood groove is kinda morbid, but very interesting!

    You may be interested to know that I've just released a long short story on Smashwords titled THE DOLL, and I'm running a promo for it! :) See below. I'd be thrilled if you could take part, or even help me spread the word!


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  2. I hadn't known that much about swords before! Thanks for the post.

    Also, I answered your follow-up questions over on my blog.

  3. J.C. : Do you teach Kendo (or another sword martial art), or is it just a sideline kind of thing?

    I've read and enjoyed The Doll (back when you gave it away via your newsletter). If I downloaded it or can remember enough, I'll do a review.

    Eagle : That's good. Now you do. (I checked the answers on your blog.)