In fantasy novels and action movies, we like to see weapons at work but we don't particularly care how they were created, sort of like sausage. We want to see our protagonist double-wielding pistols while shooting holes in the faces of their enemies, but we certainly don't need a whole montage on who handcrafted those guns. Yet for some reason, swords are different. There's a special place in our hearts for knowing exactly where and how each blade was forged before the hero pokes someone with it. Some swords have even more elaborate origin stories than the characters who wield them. All the stranger then, that no one writing our favorite books and movies ever bothered to google how these weapons are really made.
Chris Farrell, a bladesmith for 13 years and owner of Fearghal Blades in Austin was kind enough to sit down with us at Cracked in what was likely the closest we will ever get to actual journalism and explain why everything movies and novels have taught us about making swords is complete bullshit.
#6. Katanas Are the Greatest Sword Ever Invented
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If you've spent any time talking to Quentin Tarantino or listening to the pear-shaped vitriol seeping out of comic conventions, you know that the Japanese katana is essentially magic. Not since Nintendo or hentai has some quirky Japanese perversion of a mundane invention had so much cache among doughy white people with unsettling OKCupid profiles. Katanas are sharp and strong enough to cut cleanly through bone, metal, armor, and probably even the sun, if only someone could get close enough. That's all because of one very important reason: The steel has been folded over thousands of times, creating a weapon infinitely superior to shitty ol' non-folded metal. Somehow this strange Asian tradition remained a mystery to those idiot Europeans for thousands of years, which is why Bruce Willis didn't head for the broadsword aisle when he had some serious rape-stopping to do in Pulp Fiction.
"Only a Japanese blade can end something this perverted."
But actually ...
First of all, you don't need to fold good steel. Japanese swordsmiths used a metal known as tamahagane. It sounds fancy as hell, but so does anything you say in Japanese. Westerners knew tamahagane as "pig iron," which is considerably less romantic. They refused to use it in the west for weapons, not because they were stubborn morons but because it's loaded down with carbon and too much carbon will turn your sword into a brittle shower of metal shards during its first use. See, the process of folding a sword started as a way to iron out that extra carbon in a shitty alloy, turning pig metal into something more suitable for stylized murder.
Because murdering people with a machete is just crass.
Now think about folding a piece of paper -- doing it a few times is easy, but try folding it over 15 or 20 times. Likewise, you can fold steel maybe 20 times, if you were some kind of fold-crazed junkie. Real Japanese swordsmiths folded their blades about eight times. Folding much more than that would suck all the carbon out of the steel, leaving you with a soft, Play-Dohy katana that would be better suited for enemies like warm butter than anything you might encounter on a battlefield.
But more importantly, even the very best katanas are pretty much useless in the hands of anyone who hasn't gone through exhaustive training. There's a whole book's worth of rules for wielding one properly. In fact, just swinging one of these swords as hard as you can will undoubtedly end in your sweet Hanzo shattering to pieces, like the fellow in the video who was fighting against one of the most formidable enemies known to man: moderate amounts of wood.
The secret to using a katana is, counter-intuitively, to swing the sword like a fishing rod, keeping your wrist so flaccid you want to offer red-faced apologies about how this usually never happens. So if you're dead set on a katana for the apocsturbation marathon you've got planned for the End of Days, you'd better start putting in time at the lake. For the rest of you, our bladesmith recommends more idiot-proof weapons.
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Why settle for one stabbing end when you could have two?
#5. Swords Start as Molten Metal
Remember the opening to Conan the Barbarian? Of course you do, you're reading an entire article about swords.
We know that every great sword is birthed into the world in the form of blazing hot steel coursing into a cast in the depths of hell. Stylistically, there's nothing cooler than seeing the sword that's about to slice through hundreds of bad guys start as liquid fire that some filthy bearded man then has to harness into a weapon of pure destruction.
But Actually ...
Unless you're living in the Bronze Age, making a sword like this is pointless. Steel or iron blades that start off as liquid metal are better suited for wall decoration because they won't be able to withstand much more than that.
Thankfully, Conan's face is the only weapon he needs.
"The forging scene in Conan the Barbarian is Hollywood fiction, all the methods shown are imaginary and/or do not go together. Steel sword blanks are not cast, that is a Bronze Age method using copper alloys not steel. Nobody forges on an anvil with a flammable liquid on it (but some blade makers use water). You cannot compare 'sunrise red' to a sunrise, and snow is not dense enough to be used as a quenchant. It is FICTION. It is great fun but it is NOT real."
That's from another veteran swordsmith who constantly deals with the disappointment of people who want to make their own swords and are immediately angry that it doesn't look like the first five minutes of a Schwarzenegger movie. A sword has to start as a blank or huge piece of metal if it's going to have any strength to it at all. Melting it down and pouring it into a cast would be like trying to make a baseball bat out of particle board.
Buy this sword today from Fearghal Blades.
That was a steel brick until some dude with a hammer came along.
Also, the original Conan isn't the only fuck-up here. This clip from the most recent adaptation of Robert Howard's laudanum-fueled fantasy makes ice seem absolutely critical to the whole "sword-making" process:
In reality, quenching that sword in snow would have given Ron Pearlman plenty of pieces of shattered metal, but no sword. Chris Farrell assured us, "Conan's sword should have shattered after the shock from that quench. A temperature change like that would destroy it."
And speaking of quenching swords ...
#4. The Best Swords Are Quenched in Human Bodies
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In every possible way, swords are metal as hell. And the only thing more metal than quenching your red-hot sword in a vat of blood would be quenching it in a live human body, right? Fantasy novels and even myths passed down since medieval times have taught us that the only way to make the perfect sword is to cool it in the belly of a slave. It has to do with the salt in the blood cooling the steel faster, or every blade needing a soul or some other cool-sounding reason that completely ignores the glaring flaw in that practice.
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Would you really trust a blade powered by the soul of a dude you murdered?
But Actually ...
See, red hot metal is just a little bit of heat away from being liquid metal. That's why you can hammer it into all sorts of crazy shapes. You might already be able to see why sticking soft, warm metal into a human body filled with bones isn't a great idea. As Chris explained to us, "A funny thing happens to hot steel when you stick it into something solid...the steel bends." If you take a long, hot object and plunge it into a body, there's a pretty good chance it will strike bone and that malleable object would simply bend from the force. Now you have a warped, inconsistently hardened blade. You also probably have a needlessly dead slave who could have been used for milling grain or milking sheep or whatever.
Carrying loads with a single hand while wearing nothing below the crotch. Y'know, slave stuff.
Those racist myths about crazy easterners using slaves to quench their steel are just as stupid as ... well, every other myth about crazy easterners. Even if the blade managed to miss every bone in the body, most steels require either salt water or oil for quenching, blood would have actually ruined the blade all by itself.
Some modern day smiths who don't mind lung cancer might try used motor oil, but more frequently, sword makers use a plant-based oil. The sad thing is, this crazy emphasis on blood makes the act of swordmaking look less cool. Swords quenched in peanut oil, for instance, look like they're being blessed by the Lord of the Light, plus, they smell delicious. (Here's video!)
Full video at FriendlyNeighborhoodBladesmiths
You're just a few potatoes away from forge fries!