6 Things Movies Get Wrong About Swords (An Inside Look)
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.
Katanas Are the Greatest Sword Ever Invented
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.
Why settle for one stabbing end when you could have two?
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.
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 ...
The Best Swords Are Quenched in Human Bodies
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.
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!)
You're just a few potatoes away from forge fries!
Swords Are Only Battle Ready if They Have a Blood Groove
Every swordsmith worth his salt will also know to add a blood groove to the weapon he's making. That little channel that runs down the flat of the blade ensures that every time you stab an enemy, your blade comes back out as easily as it went in. Without that gutter, the human body creates a vacuum and a completely flat blade is only worth one really great stab before it has to be buried with the corpse. But with the blood groove, all the insides can fountain gaily out of the new wound and grease the blade's exit. It also keeps the sword from making that gross slurping noise similar to extracting cranberry sauce from a can.
"Gross noises" being the No. 4 leading cause of Distracted Warfighting.
But Actually ...
The "blood groove" isn't only historically inaccurate but also physically. A sword has such a small surface area that it would be almost impossible to get it stuck inside someone from suction alone. Getting it stuck on bone or cartilage, sure, but not suction. Human stomachs aren't made of glue, after all.
Plus, these things have handles.
The blood groove is actually called a Fuller, and it exists solely to make the blade lighter without sacrificing any strength or stability. By carving away huge chunks of steel on either side of the edge, a swordsmith can shed a considerable amount of weight from the whole weapon, allowing the user to lop his enemy's head off with one hand while the other holds tea, or brushes the hair from a damsel's face, or just takes a well deserved break.
Magic Metals Make for Super-Powered Swords
Fantasy stories are replete with all sorts of fancy-ass metals. Given everything from Valyrian steel and Mithril to vorpal blades there is surely some merit to real-world alloys concocted by alchemists that are better than any other metal known to man, right? After all, iron swords must have seemed like magic to all those civilizations that were fighting with bronze for centuries. Who's to say that couldn't happen again? It's impossible that we've pounded the mystery out of every alloy under the sun by now. Someone, somewhere must be inventing Adamantium as we speak.
"Aha! All along, the secret ingredient was humble dog shit."
But Actually ...
Sadly, here in the real world, we just have steel. There are no hidden mines spitting up extra special sword metal, no meteorites raining magic space iron down on our heads. And that seems like kind of a bummer. But all those historic myths about magic swords -- Beowulf's Hrunting, King Arthur's Excalibur, aren't necessarily bullshit. While all steel comes from the same basic materials -- iron and carbon -- all steel is NOT created equal. In fact, we have something much cooler than magic metals.
Case in point: Damascus Steel, so-named because Christian crusaders first encountered it in the city of Damascus and figured "that must be where they make it all." In reality, it originated from India. And it had properties that would've made Excalibur shit its scabbard in envy. Researchers in Dresden recently discovered that Damascus steel from the 17th century contains the first examples of man-made carbon nano-tubes in human history. Properly sharpened, these nano-structures would have made an impossibly sharp edge of "tiny, saw-like teeth." And Wootz Damascus steel wasn't just centuries more advanced then everything else -- it also looked exactly like a magic sword.
Or Rorschach's condom. One of the two.
The technology to make Wootz was thought lost to time -- until metallurgists at Stanford University accidentally rediscovered it while trying to create a "superplastic" form of highly advanced steel. These scientists, with access to an additional three hundred-ish years of technology, realized they were recreating something first made centuries earlier. It's not hard to see how a weapon that advanced would've made contemporary warriors throw their hands up and call "magic" on the whole thing.
Of course, making these magic swords wouldn't have been easy. Chris spent two years learning about, and then forging, a Damascus steel dagger: "I started the project during my apprenticeship. I had to do a lot of research into Wootz, what it was made of -- just the basic material makeup of the compound, the theoretical ways it was made historically. The types of forges they made, the things they purposefully put into the steel and the things they may not have known was going into the steel."
"In other words: witchcraft."
So, yeah -- that knife is basically an associate's degree worth of labor and learning. And Chris Farrell had access to the Internet -- imagine what it took for the guys who invented Damascus steel 1700 years ago.
Making a Blade is as Simple as a Montage
Unlike making a mace, or a trebuchet or a gun, a sword is fairly straightforward. All you have to do is heat the metal, pound it into shape, then heat it again like they do in movies. Those montages never take more than a couple minutes, surely you could churn out at least three swords a day.
Six, if you had "Push It to the Limit" on a repeating loop.
But Actually ...
A single longsword can take anywhere from 40 to 80 hours of forge time. And THAT only nets you the blade. By the time you take into account making the pommel, guard and handle, that one sword might have as much as two weeks of full-time labor invested in it. Daggers can take as little as 15 hours, or as many as 40 or 50. Every sword you see is the product of someone's blood, sweat, and tears. Oh, and we mean that blood part literally.
Have you ever been watching one of the Star Wars movies and thought, "I wonder what it'd feel like to get hit in the face by a lightsaber?" Chris Farrell doesn't have to wonder, because he owns a bench grinder.
AKA, "the wheel of misfortune."
Bench grinders have a reputation for grabbing things out of your hand and throwing them into your face, and Chris has felt its wrath.
"I was working in the shop, it had been a long day, and my apprentices were working on other projects while I was forging a new blade. I'd been at it for 8 to 10 hours, enough time to where I couldn't feel my right hand anymore. When you get that disconnect you run the risk of loosening your grip at the wrong time ... Well that happened with this knife, and I pulled away enough that it didn't hit me square ... but the red hot blade sliced my face open and cauterized the wound. I yelled at my apprentice, 'I just lightsabered myself!'"
Putting Chris in such rarified company as "the guy Obi-Wan sliced in a bar" and "millions of battle droids."
But high-speed blade throwers are far from the worst thing that can happen to a swordsmith. Burning metal also burns off all the nasty chemicals IN the metal. Some of them -- like zinc -- can straight up kill your ass. That's mainly a concern for people working with copper. Chris works with carbon steel, which contains manganese, which will not kill you. Instead, manganese fumes just give you a lil' ol' case of Parkinson's disease.
Beyond the fumes and flying swords you'll have to deal with flying metal splinters turning your eyes into a home for orphaned bits of steel. And all that slag doesn't just work its way out of your body. It builds up, to the point where someone like Chris can't go to the airport without TSA pulling him aside on suspicion of being a T-800.
His choice of carry-on may have something to do with that.
"I was going to visit my family in New York, making my way through security, when the metal detector went off. I removed everything from my pockets and still set it off. I had to say, 'It's probably my eyes.' They ran the wand all over my body, and nothing happened. Then I told them to run it in front of my face, and when they did that it went off."
So if you were thinking of just picking up swordsmithing as a hobby or something fun to do on weekends, maybe pick up something easier like building ships in a bottle, or earning a medical degree.
Chris Farrell runs Fearghal Blades. Most of the swords and knives shown in this article are his creations, and you can buy them all here. If you'd like to commission a custom sword or knife, message him here. Robert Evans is Cracked's head of Dick Joke Journalism and manages Cracked's article captions. He also leads the workshop moderator team. You can reach him here.
Related Reading: For some reason, people just LOVE to be wrong about weapons. Read our expose on the gun myths you believe and learn why guns don't fire when dropped AND why bullets don't make sparks. Still hungry for more gun myths? We've got a whole 'nother list that explains why machine guns and body armor aren't all they're cracked up to be. Round out your reading spree with more weapon myths spawned by Hollywood fight scenes.
We have some bad news: machine-guns run out of ammo in two seconds, body armor doesn't hold up NEARLY as well against bullets as you'd expect, and your favorite book sellers are now taking pre-orders for a text book written and illustrated entirely by the Cracked team! Hitting shelves in October, Cracked's De-Textbook is a fully-illustrated, systematic deconstruction of all of the bullshit you learned in school.
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