Sword Terminology

What do all these terms mean?

Learning the vocabulary of Replica and Reproduction Swords

In past 10 years or so, sword purchasers have become more knowledgeable. However, they remain vulnerable to misinformation or (hopefully less common) disinformation during the pre-purchase evaluation process for a modern sword. Even sword makers can have false ideas or a misunderstanding of true historical swords as they were used in combat. An ongoing project within the Western Martial Arts community, which the Order of Lepanto is proud to participate in, is to improve communication between consumers, enthusiasts, and professional sword makers. The basis on this communication begins with common terminology for all to use. The following vocabulary of common terms is offered in hopes of reducing the disagreement over definitions that can cause unnecessary angst.

Authentic – While authenticity in a replica is somewhat subjective, there are objective measures that can help the qualification process.

  • Use of high-carbon steel
  • Appropriate temper
  • Possess a full and correctly shaped tang
  • Correct cross-section and dimension of blade
  • Edge displays proper bevel angle
  • Securely attached hilt
  • Design based on a known period specimen or example
  • Battle-Ready – A modern marketing term implying the sword could potentially be a real fighting tool. The term has little meaning because nearly any item could potentially qualify as a tool for killing (e.g. a rolled up newspaper).

    Blade – The entire continuous metal structure from tang to tip. A blade is traditionally the tempered and forged portion in contrast to the hilt attachments. When hilted, a blade generally refers to the metal portion from tip to cross.

    Bladesmith – A term which is typically applied to a knife maker who uses forging as the primary shaping technique. Similar to a swordsmith, but referring to the blade only rather than a complete sword.

    Blunt – A generic term for an unsharpened sword which are typically used for practice or training.

    Case Hardened – A variety of techniques by which carbon is diffused into the surface of a low or no carbon iron. Case hardening usually produces only a thin outer skin of steel and is, therefore, metallurgically inferior to full tempering.

    Center-of-Percussion – The portion of a cutting blade that is the ideal location for striking to cause the greatest impact with the least effort or vibration (i.e., the “sweet spot”). It is a factor or the blade’s length, width, cross-sectional shape, and overall balance.

    Center-of-Gravity – a term expressing how a sword wields and handles determined by its weight and how its center-of-percussion relates to its center-of balance.

    Custom made sword – Any sword that is individually handcrafted by one individual and may or may not be historically accurate. A few may be produced, but if the manufacturer mass produces the sword it is no longer “custom” sword.

    Edge – the place where the bevel planes of a sword, knife or other bladed tool meet or come closest to one another. An edge bevel is the part that tapers in toward the centerline of a cross-section of the blade forming an edge. During sharpening usually just the edge bevels are actually ground/polished. Some edge bevels can be the entire side of the blade. Blade bevels are the tapering sides of the blade that lead to edge bevels. There are many different types of edge bevel possible.

    Elasticity – The ability of a blade to return to its shape without distortion, also called springiness.

    Fantasy Sword – A modern sword produced from an original or imaginary design as opposed to a known historical specimen. It may or may not be a functional weapon and may or may not be made through a historical process.

    Federschwerter / Feather-sword – a special practice sword used in the Medieval and Renaissance eras for training and mock combat. Also known as a foyle. Though having the same balance and weight as a “sharp” (a real weapon), it had thick rounded edges with a blunt rounded point as well as a more flexible temper on the last quarter of the blade.

    Forge – To form a blade by heating and hammering the steel either manually or by mechanical aid. “Hand-forged” refers to using traditional hammers rather than pneumatic power tools. A modern smith may use one or both.

    Forgery – Making a replica of a sword in a condition that intentionally falsifies its antiquity.

    Grind/Polish – The coarse removal of metal by abrasive action to change the shape of a piece of metal to match the desired shape of the blade. To shape/refine the finished surface or edge of a blade. This may or may not be accomplished by the aid of modern machinery or power tools.

    Hardening – The necessary process of transforming a blade of soft steel to a hardened state through quenching and tempering.

    High-carbon steel – Steel that contains a minute percentage ratio of carbon that results in harder metal. A broad and imprecise term referring normally to a steel with between 0.75%-1.20% carbon or steel that is over .50% carbon. Many replica swords do not go over .8%. Lower carbon steel would .01-.20% and medium, .20-.50%. Typically steel, of low or no alloy content, will reach maximum hardness at about 0.60% C and will get no harder as you increase the carbon content, you just wind up with (hopefully) undissolved carbides for the rest.

    Historical Sword – A specimen documented to have actually existed and been used, in this case, during the Middle Ages or Renaissance eras. Evidence may come from an authentic surviving or excavated example or one depicted in historical artwork.

    Historically Accurate Sword – This can be an exact copy of an actual historical piece (which itself may or may not have been a functional “long bladed hand tool” weapon) or it can be a sword constructed by adhering to the known materials and manner of production (which are derived from the close study and testing of historical or ethnographic swords). Accurate swords are ones that have comparable metallurgical quality, cross-sectional measurements, and dimensions of length, weight, balance, and hilt configuration of the original.

    Honing – The act of sharpening a blade to a very fine edge.

    Impact Strength – A qualitative term referring to the resilience a blade has in withstanding stress during strikes with a rigid target. This may refer to impacts on its edge or flat.

    Lamination – A construction method involving the welding together of steels of different hardness and carbon contents to produce a blade of desired strength and resilience.

    Museum-Quality – A modern marketing term (and a meaningless one as well) implying the sword is good enough to pass for a duplicate of one in a museum’s historical collection.

    Peening – The act of attaching a pommel to the tang by hammering over the small nub that protrudes or riveting it with a small cap.

    Plasticity – The property of a blade to bend without breaking or fracturing. This does not indicate whether the blade remains deformed afterwards. (See “elasticity”)

    Practice Blunt – A modern term for a training sword – see Federschwerter

    Quenching – The act of rapidly cooling a blade that has been heated to a critical temperature in order to harden it (forming martinsite). Quenching steel can be accomplished in water, oil, or air and are referred to in that way. What makes a steel air hardening, oil hardening, etc., is the amount and type of various chemicals in the steel besides the base iron and carbon.

    Replica Sword / Reproduction Sword – A modern sword that attempts to replicate an original historical sword based on a surviving specimen or from a photograph, drawing or description. An accurate replica sword blade may or may not be hand forged (e.g., stock removal is fine if the other attributes are met) and may or may not have a hilt made in the exact manner (for various reasons). The goal is to reproduce what the subject piece was like in a new condition in terms of dimensions, balance, and weight –so long as a piece is not a replica in appearance only (i.e., a “full scale model car” as opposed to a working vehicle).

    Sharp – A generic term for a sword with a sharpened edge –in other words, a weapon for either real fighting or cutting practice.

    Smelt/Smelting – To extract metal from ore through the use of heat and controlled atmosphere. Traditionally this entails the use of iron ore and a reduction furnace to separate the iron from the other minerals and impurities which would then be used to make steel through a secondary operation. Some cultures could smelt directly to steel. A more modern way is to use commercial iron powder and a crucible/furnace combination to make steel.

    Spring steel – Steel with a temper that permits considerable flexibility without breaking and are used in applications where flexibility or springiness is required (e.g. leaf springs). Typically preferred for sword blades. Modern steels exist in broad families based upon their intended main application: high-speed steels are used for drill bits because they chemically do not soften from tempering at the temperatures such bits are exposed to, shock resistant steels are used for jack hammer bits, and high-wear steels are used for dies and wear surfaces. There is no family called “sword steel”. In the past this term usually referred to a specific alloy of carbon steel, today it refers to any steel used for springs. Carbon contents for modern spring steels range between 0.50% C to 0.95% C.

    Stock Removal – A process for making knife or sword blades using abrasive or cutting tools to shape a flat piece of steel by grinding away excess material. Depending on the quality of tempering following the process can produce a very good or very poor blade. If a manufacturer uses the stock removal method to form blades they are a “maker” if forging is the primary means they are called “smiths”. Even forged blades (modern or historical) will have some degree of stock removal performed on them for final shaping/polishing.

    Sword-like-object (“SLO”) – A derogatory term for an ahistorical blade-shaped bar of steel that is neither an accurate replica nor reproduction (i.e., a stage-combat “banger”). Modern slang for wall-hangers, or non-functional swords that despite appearing to be real cannot be used in realistic practice or serious training, let alone for their historical function.

    Sword Cutler – Historically this was a person who put together a sword from parts made by others (i.e., a swordsmith). This was the usual method of sword manufacture.

    Sword Fabricator – A person who uses rolling mills, CNC machines, or other machinery to produce blades and sword parts that are fairly identical. Depending on the quality of the final piece(s), this process can be good or bad. This is fabricating with the same meaning of the word that is used throughout the metal shaping industry.

    Swordmaker – A loose term for anyone who makes swords or sword blades, either from parts or completely from scratch, using any fabrication technique or combination of techniques. A swordmaker may or may not conduct his own hardening and tempering process. The term most properly applies to an individual as opposed to a company.

    Swordsmith – One who forges a sword blade – done by heating a bar of metal and pounding it into shape, then grinding or polishing and finishing it. A true smith is also capable of quenching, hardening and tempering his own blades.

    Tang – The portion of a blade that extends through the handle to the pommel. It usually is of a different temper than the working portion of the larger blade itself. Accurate reproductions swords are those with square or rectangular “full tangs” –that is, extending the full length into the pommel –as opposed to having a rod welded on.

    Temper – A selective reheating process performed after quenching to reduce the hardness of martinsite (hardened steel) by applying specific heat over a period time.

    Tempering- The application of lower temperature to the metal part for a certain length of time to soften it up. This can range anywhere from light stress, to very springy and medium hard, to almost as soft as the un-quenched piece. A blade is first heated in a forge until bright red and then quickly dunked into a trough of water (quenched). At this point it is harder than a file and brittle as an icicle. Then, it is baked (tempering) at a low temperature for a short time so that it emerges springier and much less hard.

    Test-cutting – The evaluation of the performance of a cutting sword, and/or swordsman, by striking test materials with a sharp weapon.

    Test-to-destruction – Purposely testing a blade until it fails by breaking or catastrophic bending. Usually a sequential experiment from soft to hard-target testing designed to ensure the blade is no longer usable. Used by swordsmiths/makers to find the outer limits of performance of their blades.

    Wallhanger – A derogatory term for a decorative sword (i.e., a costume sword or prop) that is neither an accurate replica nor reproduction and is not a functional tool or true weapon.

    Weapon – What a historical sword was primarily intended as…a bladed fighting tool

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