On Magic Swords

Discussion in 'Weapons' started by Count Duckula, Jan 1, 2014.

  1. Count Duckula

    Count Duckula Valued Member

    In my previous article, I explained some of the basics of steel. I talked about different types of steel and how it was made. I also explained where some of the mythology comes from, and that it mostly boils down to marketing ploys. Wunderstahl, supersteel, unobtainium, … they’re all indicative of the fact that bladesmiths understand how to sell their stuff.

    I did however fail to explain about magic steel. I’m talking about the stuff used for making magic swords. True Magic. Or at least magic as it was perceived by people several hundred or thousand years ago. Those magic blades would not be tarnished by the sands of time. They might have been unbreakable. They might never have dulled. Craig Johnson of the Oakshotte Institute in the US has lectured on the Frankish steels from Europe being highly sought after for their ability to survive a Russian winter.

    We’ve all heard variations of legends where the hero gets a magic sword from a God or angel. Or swords made from ore that was a stolen from a holy place, or which was infused by magic in some arcane ritual or other. Human history has magic swords galore. As with most legends, there is a core of facts at the origin.

    Aside from the qualities of the swords themselves, their provenance might have been embellished in translation and retelling. For example, the stories say that Excalibur was magically drawn from a stone. Jake Keen, an archeo-metallurgist from Devonshire UK, suggests that ‘drawing the sword from the stone’ may be a reference to the smelting talents of the king rather than evidence of God*given physical prowess or special selection.

    This article will not deal with the poetic embellishments that slipped into these stories, but with the metal itself and of course the magic as it was perceived to exist at the time.Like my previous article, this one was reviewed by master smith Mike Blue. Any and all errors that might still be contained in this article are purely my own.

    The magic iron

    Long before mankind had a working knowledge of smelting iron ore, people had access to iron in the form of meteorites. About 6% of all meteorites to hit earth are metallic, not stony. The metallic ones are more durable and recognizable than the stone ones. As a result, even though they are less common, most of the global collection (about 90%) is metallic in nature.

    Back in the day when mankind had zero understanding about astrophysics, there was no better explanation than that the deity of choice had sent a magic lump of metal from heaven for some unfathomable reason. A big hot metallic lump would be found at the bottom of a crater in the epicenter of a big explosion with smoke effects as a bonus. All these things are sufficiently mysterious that the only reasonable explanation at the time was magic or divine intervention. Arthur Clarke has said this succinctly: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

    Even after mankind got around to smelting iron, metallic meteorite was vastly superior to manmade iron. The chemical composition of meteorites can vary, but invariably it contains several percents of Nickel, as well as Cobalt. These alloys add significant strength and toughness to iron.

    When mankind learned to turn iron into steel, even then the meteoritic iron could be turned into meteoritic steel and in effect be as good as or better than modern professional grade tool steel.

    Without understanding of chemistry that would not come until quite recently, people could just compare them, and see that iron smelted from ores was inferior to iron that was gifted from the gods. This is also where the term ‘cold iron’ or ‘cold steel’ comes from. Contrary to manmade iron, the meteoritic iron was never smelted. Hence the reference to its ‘cold’ origin; It came as a ready-to-use lump of iron.

    The magician

    In the olden days, smiths were placed at the same level as a priest. Priests in any society were the ones in charge of communing with the God(s) and as such they usually held positions of authority, or at the very least respect.

    From where we sit today, it might be strange to put a smith on the same pedestal. In those days however, there was not much difference in how they were regarded. Since the beginning, metal working was always shrouded in secrets. In any craft, people kept their secrets to themselves because those were the things that earned your money. This is the reason craftsmen organized themselves in guilds later in history.

    Smiths knew the secrets of transmuting one thing into another. In a time when there was zero understanding of chemistry or how the world worked, no one knew as much as a smith. They could extract metal from ores, melt it, work it, and even heat treat it. Proper heat treatment is easily seen as magic. After all, you take something, perform certain rituals, and afterwards the same thing is harder and tougher.

    Songs and prayer might be involved. Even though the words themselves would not matter, songs and prayers would impose a rhythm and timing into a process that ultimately depends a lot on timing and time intervals. At the time, no one would understand the difference between the words and the timing they imposed, certainly not the lay people who had no clue what was going on. To them they were secret magic spells.

    If you remember from my previous article, some smiths could work their magic on plain, non-meteoritic steel. Wootz steel got phenomental strength and cutting properties from the dendritic structures made to grow inside the ingot. Noone would understand the process but through the working of magic and secret recipes (for example, blood is one source of carbon) ended up with steel that had near magical properties, even when starting with plain raw materials from which other smiths could only make normal steel.

    So all in all, for all intents and purposes, a smith was a magician. Who else was better suited to handle magic metals that were a gift from a God, stolen from the underworld or cast down in fire and thunder from the heavens? If such a man used magic steel and performed his own magic on it, any blade made that would could not be anything but magical itself.

    The magic sword

    Now that we’ve established the origins of the magic steel and the magician himself, where do the magic swords fit in?

    At a time when such lumps of iron were the only source of iron in the world, only very wealthy people could usually afford it. People like a king or earl or other type of warlord in control of a sizable piece of land. A hunk of meteorite would literally be worth a king’s ransom. And what better use for it than to have a dagger or sword (or axe possibly) made from it and own a superior weapon?

    There was a time when the quality of a weapon made a difference in life and death. If you could afford it, you’d want a weapon that would not break, would not get dull, and which would –with a bit of luck- get a reputation of its own; anything to gain an edge.

    If for no other reason, a weapon would add to a warrior's reputation for prowess on the battlefield simply because his confidence and belief in his abilities were increased from holding a magical legendary weapon.

    And of course, vanity has been of all times and a mighty hero would want a heroic sword. A hunk of meteoritic steel would have made for perfect chisels or pliers. But no craftsman would have been able to afford the materials and a king would hardly look kingly with a pair of magic scissors for cutting his beard. Tutankhamun has buried with a dagger made from meteoritic iron. The man would have had precious little need to fight man to man battles, but a Pharaoh would prefer a weapon gifted by the Gods to a plain dagger for peeling fruit.

    After thousands of years and thousands of telling, the stories evolved and the origins got lost. Yet in one way or other, every story involving a sword of magical origins carries within it a nugget of truth about its origins, which set it apart from the average sword at the time.
  2. Mazulu

    Mazulu Valued Member



    I like the idea of magic swords. I probably got my biggest exposure from playing Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. To be quite honest, I think that storytelling adventures are more fun than most computer games I've played. There is something more enjoyable about experiencing the feelings of a magical world versus just a bunch of number crunching and computer graphics.
  3. Considered

    Considered New Member

  4. Considered

    Considered New Member

    I've got one of these.


    Do you know anything about it?
  5. Guitar Nado

    Guitar Nado Valued Member

    Count Duckula I just want to say I really enjoy your articles. Thanks for taking the time to write this up.

    My late father was an amateur knife maker when I was a kid. He would grind blades out of old files and various similar pieces of steel. He would experiment with various techniques for tempering, etc. Books on this sort of thing were scarce but he had a few that he got all he could from. He was always trying to learn more. I know that he would have loved to have the sort of knowledge that you have on steel and knifemaking.

    Again, it's great to read your stuff.
  6. aaradia

    aaradia Choy Li Fut and Yang Tai Chi Chuan Student Moderator Supporter

    Very interesting article.

    I am curious though. Is your discussion of meteor metal being used in swords only theoretical? I mean, have any swords been tested and found to actually be made from meteors in history?

    I am pretty sure scientists can tell nowadays, can't they?
  7. Kurai

    Kurai Valued Member

    Count Duckula. Thanks for the great read.
  8. belltoller

    belltoller OffTopic MonstreOrdinaire Supporter

    As someone who worked in machine shops, I've found your articles enjoyable as well!

    Hope more to come.

  9. Count Duckula

    Count Duckula Valued Member

    Yes. Of course, testing involves removing metal and from historical artifacts that's not possible. But a well known example was King Tut's dagger which was meteoritic iron.

    After modern iron smelting and steel was introduced, the importance of meteoritic iron decrease, to the point where in 1800 something, a horse was shod with a horseshoe made from meteoritic iron.
  10. aaradia

    aaradia Choy Li Fut and Yang Tai Chi Chuan Student Moderator Supporter

    Wow, in all my reading up on Tutankhamun, I had never heard that! Fascinating.

    Thanks for all the intersting information!
  11. David Harrison

    David Harrison MAPper without portfolio

    Another great article.

    Thanks Count.
  12. Hannibal

    Hannibal Cry HAVOC and let slip the Dogs of War!!! Supporter

    Looks like a BKS Early Celtic model
  13. philosoraptor

    philosoraptor carnivore in a top hat Supporter

    Really enjoyed reading this.
  14. Frodocious

    Frodocious She who MUST be obeyed! Moderator Supporter

    Nice article! :)
  15. Count Duckula

    Count Duckula Valued Member

    Without knowing anything about the sword or being able to hold it in my hand and do some tests, I can only tell that ye, it does look like a sword :)

    Looking at the website, the sword is listed for a meagre 169 pounds or 250ish US dollars. That is cheap. Really really cheap for an actual sword.

    •Forged High-Carbon Blade
    -> this phrase is meaningless. If you're going to say anything, be specific. Tell me which type of steel. Because they could mean anything with 'high' carbon. Besides, not all types of steel with 'high' carbon content are suitable for impact weapons. And for the ones that are I'd like to know how it was hardened because that is critically important.

    •Scabbard included
    ->ok. So the actual cost of the blade is even lower than the list price because the scabbard cost money too.

    •This sword has a sharp edge
    -> this means nothing. Nothing except that you could cut yourself. Sharpness is not indicative of quality

    •This sword is functional
    -> that is a rather bold statement given all the unknowns. And it doesn't say 'what' function it is suitable for. Cutting of dummy targets? Steel on steel contact? Kata practice?

    •This sword is made from high-carbon steel
    -> See higher

    •This sword is hand forged
    -> uhuh. No, not in a million years unless they have a very different definition of 'handforged'. To me, it means that a smith uses a hammer to shape a piece of steel. That is a lot of work. Even using an automatic drophammer, making a sword and finishing it properly is time consuming. For an actual handforged sword, you can add a zero to the price. The one exception would be if the smith was a slave laborer and didn't need to be paid. What they probably mean is that someone held the bar at steel in his hands during some part of the production process.

    Fwiw, 200$ worth of blade with most bladesmiths I know (myself included) gets you a very basic knife. Nothing fancy, nothing difficult or big. Definitely not an actual sword which is meant to be used as a sword. Retail, a handmade sword sets you back at least a thousand.

    A master smith I respect very much calls things like this 'sword like objects'. Please understand that these words are not rooted in elitism, but in the knowledge that making a sword with quality fittings, with full attention to detail and for use as an impact weapon is a labor intensive craft that requires a lot of skill.
    Last edited: Jan 2, 2014
  16. Considered

    Considered New Member

    Thanks Count Duckula!
  17. Count Duckula

    Count Duckula Valued Member

    Thanks for the kinds words everyone. Steel is my passion, and I do like writing so whenever I feel I can add something useful I'll gladly write it down.
  18. johnkeane440

    johnkeane440 New Member

    this design is a replica of a Celtic sword which, as far as I know, was almost exclusively found in Ireland. That sword and the Irish ring hilted swords are the only two swords that are regarded as Irish. Your sword is of a pre christian celtic design with the ring hilted sword being medieval.
  19. TheCapoeiraList

    TheCapoeiraList New Member

    Up until quite recently, a Malay kris had to be made out of meteoric iron. This is no longer true because the supply of meteoric iron is exhausted. When I read this in Don Drager's book about Indonesian martial arts, I thought that krises made of meteoric iron, would be treasured heirlooms, and never sold. However a friend of who is an expert in Filipino martial arts owns such a sword. So if you are interested, you should be able to buy one. They are on the market.
  20. Rogoh Sukmah

    Rogoh Sukmah Valued Member

    Be careful with it, however! Because meteoric iron keris are so rare, they are either very expensive or very false. The chance that you buy a fake keris is larger. If you can stand out the difference between ordinary iron and meteor it helps, of course.

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