Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Tag: weapons

Why Muskets Supplanted Bows

July 4, 2022

…[The Native American] self bow and the seventeenth-century musket had comparable effective ranges (50 yards optimum, 100 to 150 yards at the outside)….

…For Amerindians, because the bow or the musket had to serve in both war and the hunt, something in the technology had to satisfy the needs of both pursuits…. A musket ball was less likely than an arrow to be deflected by vegetation, and it also had a greater kinetic impact on the target. A deer hit with an arrow receives a very deep wound…, which, though eventually lethal, might require the hunter to pursue the bleeding deer for some distance. In contrast, a musket penetrates flesh, shatters bone, and creates a larger wound cavity. It “smacks,” whereas an arrow “slices….” A military musketball at 50 yards hits a target with 706 foot pounds of kinetic energy. An arrow from a typical modern bow hits at 50 yards with 50 to 80 foot pounds of energy. This is more than enough to penetrate flesh and tissue and produce a killing wound, but it is much less likely to drop an animal in its tracks.

The musket has similar advantages against humans. Much of a human target is limbs, especially when walls or trees are used to cover the trunk of the body. An arrow wound to the leg or arm is rarely lethal, although it can be debilitating. But a musketball strike to the arm or leg may shatter the bone and is more likely to carry debris into the wound, lead to infection, sepsis, and death.… In the immediate term, a man with a shattered leg or arm, flung to the ground by the weight of a musket shot, also makes a better target for being taken prisoner…. Unable to flee, he becomes vulnerable and may hold up his fellows trying to carry him away from the field…. More obviously, bullets cannot be dodged, whereas arrows in flight over any distance (especially on an arcing trajectory) can be seen and dodged. Modern film footage of the Dani people’s arrow and javelin battles in New Guinea shows this process clearly, and numerous European witnesses commented on the Amerindians’ ability to dodge arrows.

Empires and Indigenes, pp. 56-58

Emphases mine.

Players of fantasy RPGs should note the quoted effective range for bows. Many games have much longer distances, but those are derived from battlefields where archers are loosing volleys at large enemy formations. Gamers should further note the easy of dodging an arrow at anything beyond short range.

A Khyber Knife

September 29, 2021

Rung ho!” Narayan Singh shouted again. A tremendous overhand cut knocked his opponent back on his heels; the Lancer took the instant to pull a Khyber knife from his girdle and flip it through the air toward King.

“Here, huzoor—for you!”

It flashed through the air; a genuine Pathan chora, a pointed cleaver two feet long with a back as thick as a man’s thumb and an edge fit to shave with….

S.M. Stirling, The Peshawar Lancers, Chapter 4

Such a brief but vivid description.

Armor and Swords Did Not Change Overnight

June 14, 2021

For someone living in our standardized age it is frequently confusing and even difficult to grasp that nothing was consistent or standardized. Uniforms were still several hundred years in the future. The Viking Age didn’t end at 12 midnight October 14, 1066, with everybody jumping around shouting “We’re now in the Middle Ages.’ Armor and swords didn’t change overnight, and a blade could be in use for well over a hundred years, and a mail shirt that belonged to grandad might just fit you.

One of the hardest things in discussing this subject with someone who is just getting started, is that there are no hard and fast rules. If someone doesn’t have a helmet, and gets hold of one that is two hundred years old, he’ll wear it. Better to be old fashioned than to have your skull split!

The Book of Swords, pp. 98-99

Greek Missile Tactics

June 9, 2019

Missile-type weapons played only a very small role in connection with the hoplite phalanx. With the Greeks the bow was a traditionally respected weapon; the national hero, Hercules, was an archer. In the case of the Athenians, a special archer corps is mentioned in the campaign of Plataea. But since the time the phalanx was formed of spear-carriers, the bow was pushed into the background, since the two arms, even if not mutually exclusive, can be combined only with great difficulty. One can picture the archers, sling men, and javelin-throwers in front of, beside, and behind the phalanx. Whenever they were deployed forward of the front line, they must have disappeared before the clash of the two phalanxes, and therefore would necessarily have withdrawn around the flanks. If they attempted to push back through the phalanx itself, the resulting disorder and delay would cause much more damage than the advantage from the losses that they might have inflicted on the enemy. In order to be sure of passing around the two flanks, the sharpshooters would have to begin their withdrawal while the phalanxes were still several hundred paces apart. If the enemy had no sharpshooters and we sent out marksmen against him, to fire on him continuously during the approach march, that could of course cause him serious disruption. If both sides had sharpshooters, however, these two forces would, for the most part, only shoot at each other and would have no influence at all on the decisive phalanx battle. Firing obliquely on the approaching enemy from the two flanks of the hoplite phalanx, a number of marksmen could exercise an influence on the progress of the battle. But we find no recognizable traces of this kind of action, even in the later Greek battles.

Finally, if sharpshooters were stationed behind the phalanx, they could shoot out their volley from that position shortly before the clash. Fired in an arching trajectory, however, without real aiming, this could not be very effective, especially when, as is usually the case, our own phalanx was moving toward the enemy at the assault pace. Consequently, although we find such an employment of projectiles fairly often recommended in theory, nevertheless, from a practical viewpoint, it was used only infrequently, as, for example, in the battle that Thrasybulus fought against the thirty Tyrants in the streets of Piraeus (Xenophon). There, however, the troops of Thrasybulus stood only ten men deep, on a rise of ground, and waited for the enemy, who advanced up the street with a fifty-man depth. Under these special conditions the projectiles fired from above onto the thick mass were able to do very good service. Generally speaking, however, the marksmen formed only an auxiliary arm. The real combat force of the Greeks in the Persian Wars consisted only of hoplites.

Hans Delbrück, Warfare in Antiquity, pp. 54-55

Byzantine Cavalry

April 20, 2019

Most cavalry consisted of archers who trained first on foot, then on horseback. They could shoot in either the Roman or Persian manner, that is, using either a thumb lock or a finger release, the former adopted from the Huns. The Hunnic method afforded a faster delivery. Practice was to be carried out on a fast-moving horse, preferably on a route march to conserve the horse’s energy, and the rider should shoot both straight ahead and to the rear, both to right and left. Speed and dexterity were vital, the archer being expected to shoot, replace his strung bow in its case, grasp and manipulate the spear carried on his back, replace it, and once again take up his bow. He needed a level-headed horse who did not quicken once the reins were slackened, nor as the rider shifted his position for the various releases. Above all, whether the rider was loosing arrow, lance, javelin or spear, the horse had to keep a straight course, an even pace, and a lowered head and neck to facilitate the rider’s aim.

The full panoply of the higher-ranking Byzantine cavalrymen consisted of ankle-length hooded mail coat, gorget, small plumed helmet, bow and bowcase, covered quiver for thirty to forty arrows, two cavalry lances of Avar type, and sword. In his baldric the soldier carried an awl and a file for on-the-spot mending of gear and sharpening of weapons. His clothing consisted of a roomy tunic, fixed at the knee when riding (this helped to prevent the pinch and chafe of stirrup leathers), which suggests a garment rather like trousers. The outer covering was a large felt cloak, both for wet weather and to mask the gleam of mail when on patrol. It also gave some protection against arrows.

The horse’s tack consisted of a saddle with stirrups, a thick saddle pad, a good-quality bridle, a capacious saddle bag to carry three or four days’ iron rations, and spare bowstrings. No doubt other essentials were also carried, such as hoof picks, strips of leather [thong] for saddlery and personal gear repair, etc., plus some food for the horse along with the soldier’s own rations, and a lasso with a thong and a pair of hobbles. Wicker cages were provided for carrying mail coats when not in use. During battle or when on a raid one of these containers was attached behind the saddle of the soldier’s charger to protect the mail coat against the elements, and so that the soldiers could unburden themselves when they were not needed.

The thick saddle pad protected the horse’s back from saddle sores and pressure galls, which could have put it out of action, and also gave some protection against arrows or other weapons.

Ann Hyland, The Medieval Warhorse, p. 27

The Art of Axe-fighting

November 13, 2016

Axe-fighting was a complex and demanding dance. It looked much more brutal and simplistic than sword-work, but in some respects it was vastly more subtle than the ballet of the swordsman. The killing edge of an axe was in a position to harm an opponent for a much smaller percentage of engagement time than the killing surfaces of a sword. Axe fighting was about swinging and circling, moving and evading, choosing the moment to land the blow. It was about seeing that opening coming three or four steps ahead, like a good [chess] player, and then taking advantage of it without telegraphing the stroke. It was about predicting the interface between swing and moving target. Misjudge that, and you’d lose the fight.

Prospero Burns, chapter 12

A Sword’s Sole Purpose

March 16, 2016

[Bronze Age] weapons are horrifying and beautiful, repulsive and attractive in the way the Iliad can be, for their lack of sentiment, the unadorned facts they represent, but also for the perfection with which they are made, their seamless match of purpose and material. The swords that have been found in Mycenaean graves are always exceptionally well-balanced things, the weight in the pommel counteracting the weight in the blade so that they feel functional in the hand, body-extensions, enlarging the human possibilities of dominance and destruction. The lances would have been useful in the hunt, to be thrown or to jab at cornered prey, but these swords mark a particular horizon in human history: they are the first objects to be designed with the sole purpose of killing another person. Their reach is too short for them to be any good with a wild animal thrashing in its death terror. A sword is only useful if someone else agrees to the violence it threatens; it will get to another man who is prepared to stand and fight. Some of the most beautiful decorated swords are found scarcely used, ceremonial objects to be carried in glory. But most of the rest show the marks of battle; the edges hacked and notched where another sword clashed onto them, worn where those edges were resharpened for the next time.

Adam Nicolson, Why Homer Matters, p. 121

Emphasis mine.

Swords Were Items of Regular Dress

June 19, 2015

The sword enjoyed another important advantage over bow or spear: it could and did become an item of regular dress. Scabbard, hilt and belt provided eye-catching fields for decorative display, connoting taste, wealth and above all the personal autonomy, courage, or sanction of higher authority openly to wear a lethal weapon. It was a warning, challenge or threat, symbolizing status, rank, or profession as a fighting man. Here we move beyond mere functional considerations to the symbolic value and meaning of the sword. Highly prized material objects of great physical and symbolic power, swords were widely selected for religious offerings in ancient Europe (a key reason we now have so many in our museums). In particular, they were deposited in watery places, inspiring the legend of Excalibur. It is hardly surprising, then, that the sword was also widely used as a metaphor in antiquity, not least by the warlike Romans themselves.

Simon James, Rome and the Sword, p. 19

Swords Were Prized Because They Were Expensive

June 19, 2015

Swords were also prized because, of all elements of the pre-gunpowder panoply, with the possible exception of the composite bow, they were the most technically demanding to make, with consequent expense in materials, expertise and time. In thrusting or slashing, a blade must withstand huge mechanical stresses, flexing to a degree yet not bending or snapping, while retaining sharpness of edge. By comparison the spear, itself a fearsome weapon, was simple and cheap to produce.

Simon James, Rome and the Sword, p. 19

Swords are Specialized Instruments for Killing

June 19, 2015

Among pre-gunpowder weapons of offence, arms such as the axe, spear, javelin, bow or sling had origins or alternative uses as tools or hunting equipment. The sword was different. From its Bronze Age invention it was a specialized instrument for killing people. Further, while weapons such as the powerful composite bow, shooting iron-tipped arrows, rival it in lethality, the sword demands that its wielder approach a foe closely; it is a murderous extension of the fist, yet also puts the wielder in reach of a similarly armed opponent. Par excellence it connotes both aggression and courage, and an especially personalized source of terror quite distinct from the danger of a distant, semi-anonymous bowman. For, instead of the relatively small puncture wounds of arrows (lethal though they may be), it threatens cloven skulls, dismemberment or disembowelling, injuries more devastating and hideous to behold than those inflicted by most other hand-wielded weapons. Of all common arms, it offers the highest likelihood of instantly killing, or at least incapacitating, foe or victim.

Simon James, Rome and the Sword, p. 19

3000 Years of Combat with Sword and Shield

July 24, 2010

Underlying all or any tactics of battle is one basic art which for nearly 3,000 years remained unchanged, in spite of chariot or warhorse, long-bow or cannon or musket—the art of hand-to-hand combat with sword and shield. The people of the late Bronze Age had large round shields and beautiful cut-and-thrust swords; how they fought with them the vase-painters of classical Greece show us—and in the same way the clansmen of the Scottish Highlands fought, right up to the [Jacobite Rising of 1745 C.E.], with broadsword and targe.

The shield is the most obvious, the simplest and therefore the most primitive item of defensive armour. It does not take much imagination to picture some Palaeolithic hunter grabbing up the first object that came to his hand to ward off the flint spear of an irritated fellow cave-dweller. From this to the fashioning of a wickerwork frame covered with hide is an easy and logical step. A shield is about the most effective piece of defensive equipment one can have, too—hence its early appearance, its universal usage and its survival in the Highlands until the eighteenth century [C.E.]; survival, too, until the present time in such parts of the world where men dwell sufficiently remote from the ballistic blessings of modern civilization. The round shields of the Western Bronze Age are generally flat, with a diameter of about 2 [feet]; they have a small central hollow boss across the inside of which is riveted a short bar for a hand grip. They are of fine workmanship, the most common type being embossed with concentric circular ridges, interspersed with small bosses. The metal is thin, and it would have been backed with layers of leather, put on wet, and pressed into the hollows of the embossed ridges. When dry and hard this would provide an excellent backing for the bronze. Such shields were probably only borne by chiefs and noblemen, but then we may assume that at this time all warriors who bore a sword and shield were noblemen.

The Archaeology of Weapons, p. 24

Composite Bows Were Superior But Expensive

February 16, 2010

[Bronze Age] composite bows were also notoriously expensive. Such a bow was a very effective weapon, having double or triple the range of a self bow, but its manufacture was costly and difficult (the layering and lamination of wood, horn, and sinew was done at long intervals, and a properly aged bow would leave a bowyer’s shop five or ten years after he had brought in the raw materials from which it was made).

Robert Drews, The End of the Bronze Age, p. 110

Japanese Spears: Yari and Naginata

January 11, 2010

In ancient mythology, Japan was known as “the country of one thousand fine halberds,” and very seldom did an illustration of the ancient bushi outfitted for war fail to show him holding his spear—a weapon second in traditional significance only to the bow and arrow….

Secrets of the Samurai, p. 241

In both design and structure, the true Japanese spear (known generally as the yari) was similar to all Japanese blades in the high quality of its tempering, its lightness, and the ease with which it could be maneuvered. The great artists of steel forged these spears for the bushi with the same care and imagination they lavished on his swords. The spear blades were carefully protected by sheaths (a requirement included among military laws of the clans). The shafts (nakae) of these spears came in almost every weight and length imaginable. They were made of excellent wood, carefully seasoned and treated, usually reinforced by and decorated with strips or rings of metal (sujigane) at the points that would be under pressure when leverage was applied or a blow parried.

Secrets of the Samurai, p. 241

Spearheads…were cast of the same high quality steel used for swords and came in many lengths and shapes. They can be divided, however, into three major groups: straight spearheads, curved spearheads, and the variously shaped spearheads. The straight spearhead was the most common. It was double-edged, almost like an abbreviated version of the archaic Japanese sword (ken)….

Secrets of the Samurai, p. 244

At a point of transition between the straight spearhead and the curved spearhead is the blade of the nakamaki, which resembles that famous spear which gained great popularity among the bushi: the naginata, often erroneously referred to in English as a halberd. This term, however…

is a defective translation, for the Japanese naginata (literally, long sword) was not a pole terminating in a battle-axe and spear-head as the English name implies. It was a [scimitar]-like blade, some three feet in length, fixed to a slightly longer haft. Originally, the warlike monks alone employed this weapon, but from the [eleventh century C.E.], when the Minamoto and the Taira clans began their long struggle, the naginata found much favor among the military men, its combined powers of cutting and thrusting being fully recognized.

The blade of the naginata, in fact, was like that of a sword, curved near the point, where its shape became even more pronounced. Stone writes that there were three varieties: the first appears to have been the ancient tsukushi-naginata, the shaft of which was inserted into a metal loop on the back of the blade; the second and most common had the tang or base secured to the shaft; and the third and rarest had a socket at the base into which the shaft was inserted (ta-no-saki). They were all carried appropriately sheathed and their shafts, as might be expected, were heavily lacquered and decorated with metal mountings. The naginata became famous not only because of its tremendous versatility in combat but also because of the many individual schools which developed intricate styles and remarkable proficiency in its use. Certain authors, in fact, even believe that the introduction of protective armor for the legs and the lower part of the body was in answer to the development and lethal use of the naginata….

Secrets of the Samurai, pp. 244-247

The third group of spearheads includes a confusing variety of shapes, usually highly specialized. The sasu-mata, for example, was a spear with a forked head and hooks or spikes at its base that could be used to cut and pierce a target not only in front but also returning behind it…. The futamata-yari was also a spear with a forked head, and the magari-yari was a beautiful trident, with the side-blades set at right angles to the central blade, their points turning slightly inward….

Secrets of the Samurai, pp. 247-248

All emphasis mine.

Hunnic Bow and Mongolian Release

May 2, 2008

The Byzantine horsed archer was an expert, capable of loosing arrows from either side of the horse while at full gallop, either shooting a fleeing opponent, or defending himself by a ‘Parthian’ shot over the horse’s rearquarters if he himself was fleeing. The method used was a full draw to the right ear which imparted greater poundage to the arrow. The penetrative quality of Roman equipment used at the battle of Callinicum was due to the adoption of the Hunnic bow and the Mongolian release. The Mongolian release, which uses a thumb lock, is faster, whereas the Mediterranean release, using the fingers to draw, is slower and with an oriental bow the fingers would be crushed. Procopius says the bow used by the Persians at Callinicum was much weaker and the arrows unable to pierce armour, even though the rate of delivery was greater.

Ann Hyland, The Medieval Warhorse, p. 22

Emphasis mine.

The Rapier Was the Blade of Choice

May 2, 2008

The old original war sword was so massive it sometimes required both hands. It had been designed—and worked splendidly if you were strong enough—for knocking an armored knight off his horse, but it was useless at close quarters except as a bludgeon. The duel of honor refined it.

From the mid-sixteenth century [C.E.] through the seventeenth, the rapier was the blade of choice. It was sharp-edged but used primarily for thrusting, not cutting, and it was a formidable piece, often nearly four feet long, topped by an elaborate hand guard, and weighed two and a half pounds. Wearing it advertised how tall as well as how brave you were: Four feet of steel hanging from your waist, and you swaggering around with it, made a statement.

Elizabethan London passed an ordinance against strolling the streets with more than a three-foot blade; if you came into the city with something longer, the gatekeepers were under orders to break off the extra inches. Even so, that’s a lot of blade, and it was often used in combination with a dagger for close work.

In 1599 [C.E.], a gentleman named George Silver published an attack on this newfangled monster, developed, he says, as a purely civilian weapon with no distinguished military history. It was, in effect, a costume accessory, ineffective for serious fighting. Once your opponent is past your point, he complained, it is too difficult to clear your weapon and bring the point to bear again; the length of the blade drags in the hand, and it tends to favor the thrust, which can be turned aside easily, over the cut that takes manly strength to avoid.

Not everyone agreed. Long after the rapier had evolved into lighter, shorter versions, some still swore by it. Late in the nineteenth century, Captain Sir Richard Burton, in The Sentiment of the Sword, wrote of it with passion:

Amongst all weapons the rapier alone has its inner meanings, its arcana, its mysteries. See how it interprets a man’s ideas. and obeys every turn of his thoughts! At once the blade that threatens and the shield that guards, it is now agile, supple, and intelligent; then slow, sturdy, and persevering; here, light and airy, prudent and supple; there, blind and unreflecting, angry and vindictive; I am almost tempted to call it, after sailor fashion, ‘she.’

Gentlemen’s Blood, pp. 59-60

Emphasis mine.

Inside the Greek Phalanx

May 2, 2008

At the time of the Persian Wars the great mass of a Greek army was composed of armored foot soldiers with a thrusting lance about two meters long, the hoplites. The protective equipment consisted of helmet, harness, greaves, and shield. A short sword was an auxiliary weapon.

The hoplites form a tight tactical unit, the phalanx. The phalanx is a continuous linear arrangement composed of several ranks. The depth varies; very often we hear of an 8-man depth, which seems to be regarded as a kind of normal formation; but we also hear of 12-man and even 25-man depths.

In such a phalanx two ranks at most can participate in the actual combat, with the second rank stepping into the holes of the first at the moment of contact. The following ranks serve as immediate replacements for the dead and wounded, but they exercise principally a physical and moral pressure. The deeper phalanx will defeat the more shallow one, even if on both sides exactly the same number of combatants actually manage to use their weapons.

But for the advantage of this pressure, it would be much better to lengthen the line, outflanking the enemy and enveloping his two flanks at the moment of shock. But with equal opposing forces such an envelopment can only take place at the expense of the depth of the formation, and although it requires only a few minutes from the first contact of the two lines until the envelopment has been completed, nevertheless in this time the deeper of the opposing phalanxes would presumably already have overrun the shallow center of the opponent and would thereby have broken up the whole formation.

Therefore, in any consideration of the phalanx two principles stand diametrically opposed: depth, which gives weight, and length, which facilitates envelopment. It is up to the commander to determine the depth and length of his phalanx from the circumstances of the situation, the strength of the armies, the quality of the troops on both sides, and the form of the terrain. A very large army is more strengthened in the dimension of depth than in the dimension of length, because it is extremely difficult to move a long line forward in a fairly aligned and well-ordered way, whereas the formation of a deep column is not so easily disrupted.

Since the rearmost ranks of the phalanx almost never arrive at the point of using their weapons, it might appear superfluous to supply complete protective armament to all the warriors from about the fourth rank back. Nevertheless, we have no account from the Greeks to the effect that such a distinction was ever made. An unarmored person is not capable of really fighting against an armored one. The forming up of several ranks of unarmored men behind the armored ranks would therefore have been not much more than a kind of pretense. The realization that they could not really expect to receive any true support from these rear ranks would have seriously weakened the drive, the forward thrust of the foremost ranks, in which, of course, the value of the rearmost ranks normally lies. If, at any section of the line, it really happened that, by some possible chance splitting of the phalanx, the armored enemy penetrated into the unarmored rearmost ranks, the latter would have had to give ground at once, and the flight in this one area would easily have pulled the entire army back with it.

Least of all, then, would it have been desirable to put possibly unreliable men, slaves, in the rearmost ranks of the phalanx. They would do no good there but would be able, through pre mature, perhaps even malicious, flight, to create a panic quite easily, even among the hoplites.

This explanation does not eliminate, of course, the opposite proposition, that when one has some men less well armed, they are placed in the rearmost ranks. Such lightly armed or only partially armed men can also be useful by helping friendly wounded soldiers and by killing or taking prisoner those enemy wounded over and around whom the battle is being waged. Those are only secondary services, however, and the phalanx as such presupposes the most completely armed warriors possible throughout all the ranks.

Of the utmost importance in this kind of combat is the type of men who stand in the first rank. Again and again, in his war songs, Tyrtaeus praises the men of the forward battle, ‘among those fighting in front.’ The later theoreticians recommend to army commanders that the most reliable men be placed in the first and last ranks, in order to hold the entire phalanx together. An accused Athenian citizen brought out in his defense in a trial the fact that he had voluntarily had himself placed in the first rank in a dangerous battle.

Hans Delbrück, Warfare in Antiquity, pp. 53-55

No Match for a Well-Trained Aristocrat

May 2, 2008

All [medieval Japanese] warriors, regardless of rank, were trained in swordsmanship. Those of the upper ranks, of course, had more time to devote to the pursuit of excellence in this art, and to the pursuit of superior instructors—which explains why a retainer of lower rank, notwithstanding his longer exposure to the hardships of military life, was usually no match for a higher-ranking bushi in a duel. This type of situation…resembles that of Europe during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries [C.E.], when hardened veterans of countless battles were still no match for a well-trained aristocrat with a sword—the noble’s weapon which, with the rise of the bourgeoisie to power at the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, became known as the gentleman’s weapon.

Secrets of the Samurai, pp. 254-55

The Riddle of Steel

May 2, 2008

By 2500 [B.C.E.], iron, which the Sumerians called “a metal from heaven,” was already in use. (The word “iron” has close English connections to the word “ire” but is also related to “holiness,” “frenzy,” and “defecation”—all having the common denominator “fast-moving.”) Societies started to make swords from iron without realizing what the processes they employed did to the metals under hammer and forge—they simply judged by the results. Not until 1860 [C.E.], quite late in the first industrial revolution, did people start to understand carbon’s role in the steelmaking process. To make cast iron, one needs about 4 percent carbon (about as much as pure iron will hold); to make steel, one needs iron and 1 percent carbon or less.

That carbon would affect the behavior of iron is easy enough to understand, but these percentages seem so small. [Professor James E.] Gordon clarifies all this by explaining that the percentage is calculated by weight, not volume—and since carbon atoms are much lighter than iron atoms, the actual volume of carbon in steel is about 20 percent.

The difficulty facing the primitive metallurgist was to get a furnace hot enough to fuse metal and carbon. Bronze melts at between 900 and 1,000 degrees Celsius, just within reach of the ordinary wood fire. Pure iron melts at 1,535 degrees—for centuries beyond the range of technology, which is what makes the achievements of the Damascene swordsmiths so astonishing. However, even small amounts (by weight) of carbon will lower the melting point of iron considerably, and carbon fuel, usually in the form of charcoal, was often used to heat iron ore. If just over 4 percent of carbon seeped into the metal, it would lower the melting point by nearly 40 degrees, a temperature just about attainable with a blown charcoal fire. The Damascenes must have discovered this technique for themselves, after which it fell out of memory for several centuries.

Hammering iron has two effects: first, it squeezes out most impurities, including what is known as “slag,” a dirty brown or gray substance formed from mixing with lime or limestone; second, it reduces the carbon content of the iron, leaving only small amounts of silicon and slag, both of which protect the wrought iron from becoming too soft. When iron is heated and beaten into elongated billets, it develops a particular kind of oxide coating. A smith would then double the metal over like a piece of pastry, trapping the oxidized film between layers of hot metal. This folding process would be repeated about a dozen times, which is why top-grade swords when broken show a delicate wavy pattern, each line the sign of a beating operation. But the alloy will stand a maximum of only about fifteen such procedures; thereafter blades begin to weaken (our word “meager” is related to the French word “marcrosse,” meaning “endlessly thinned out”).

Next comes the crucial “quenching” phase. This hardens the steel as it progresses from its “austenite” to its “martensite” state—that is, iron once again deprived of carbon. The metal loses heat very rapidly, but a smith must still quench a blade, that is, plunge it quickly into a cool liquid, as fast as he can. If a blade is quenched too swiftly, cracks appear, especially if water rather than oil is used. So quenching hardens, tempering softens; the trick is to find the ideal balance. Preparing a steel blade entails a series of approximations, each process going too far in one direction and being offset by the next.

Quenching calls upon a further special skill, and at this point sword-making enters into mythology. Some of the myths are true, however: it is better to quench a blade in urine because it cools more quickly than water. Urine also contains urea and ammonia, both nitrogen compounds, which spread into the iron, forming hard needlelike crystals of iron nitride. These again contribute to the strength of a blade, but iron has to be very hot for the nitrogen compounds to enter it—dogs do not harden lampposts.

Richard Cohen, By The Sword, p. 110-12

Advantages of Swords Over Pistols in Dueling

May 2, 2008

The sword had been quite sufficient for its gory tasks, but over the course of the eighteenth century [C.E.] the dueling pistol began to replace it, a switch that romantics like [Sir Richard] Burton lamented as “an ugly exchange of dull lead for polished steel.” During the transition, people sometimes used both at once. In 1690, in Ireland, the high sheriff of Country Down had an argument with a neighbor over dinner, and they fought with sword and pistol: One was run through with a sword and the other was shot. Both died. Sometimes, if the pistols misfired, the combatants threw them away and whipped out their reliable swords.

Slashing and killing a man with a sword offered visceral pleasures not found in guns. It was a physical experience. You held the sword in your hand and felt the flesh of your enemy give way under its point…. Your arm quivered to the crunch of bone and cartilage, and knew the spongy resistance of lung or bowel. His blood, probably mixed with yours, splashed your shoes. His face was close; you could see his eyes.

Another advantage of sword over pistol was that the damage done was directly related to the gravity of the occasion. In a casual matter, you could swoop in with the upward-cutting manchette blow that disabled his sword arm, ending the encounter and leaving him with nothing but a bruised elbow. Swords did what they were told to do. You could defend yourself with a sword and parry a thrust; the only way to parry a gun is to shoot the man who’s shooting it. A sword was always a sword, but pistols often misbehaved or misfired. The skillful swordsman could inflict as much or as little damage as he wanted, but pistol duels were fraught with accident and surprise. You could kill an old friend who’d laughed at the wrong moment, instead of merely flicking a drop of blood from his arm and then taking him out for a drink. Or you could hit the wrong target, which never happened with swords: In one duel in France, both parties fired simultaneously and simultaneously killed each other’s seconds.

When you’d killed a man with your personal sword and not by some proxy impersonal bullet, your soul had killed his. When the victor claimed the sword of the fallen as his right and broke it over his knee, killing him in effigy, generations quivered. When [Robert E.] Lee handed his sword to [Ulysses S.] Grant at Appomattox, strong men wept. Some say Grant wept.

With guns, the satisfaction was remote. You stood well separated by the agreed-on paces. Shoot your man and he crumples and falls, his weapon drops from his hand, but as far as your own hand knows he might have been struck by lightning. You didn’t press the bullet into his chest; it flew there by itself, mechanically. You were distanced from the action, like the pilot of a high-altitude bomber.

Gentlemen’s Blood, pp. 72-75

Emphasis mine.

Backstabbing Assassins, Not Knights of the Air

May 2, 2008

There is little finesse in air combat. Many civilians and those who have never looked through the gun sight…at an enemy aircraft have a romantic perception, no doubt influenced by books and movies about World War I, that pilots are knights of the air, chivalrous men who salute their opponents before engaging in a fight that always is fair. They believe that elaborate rules of aerial courtesy prevail and that battle in the clear pure upper regions somehow is different, more glorified and rarefied, than battle in the mud. This is arrant nonsense. Aerial combat, according to those who have participated, is a basic and primitive form of battle that happens to take place in the air. Fighter pilots—that is, the ones who survive air combat—are not gentlemen; they are backstabbing assassins. They come out of the sun and attack an enemy when he is blind. They sneak up behind or underneath or “bounce” the enemy from above or flop into position on his tail—his six-o’clock position—and “tap” him before he knows they are there. That is why fighter pilots jink and weave and dart about like water bugs in a mason jar. They never hold a heading or a position longer than six or eight seconds. Aerial combat is brutally unforgiving. To come in second place is to die, usually in a rather spectacular manner. Most casualties never know they are targets until they are riddled with bullets, covered with flames, and on the way to creating a big hole in the ground. Those who want to engage in the romanticized World War I pirouette of a fair fight will have a short career. Thus, aerial combat favors the bold, those who are not afraid to use the airplane for its true purpose: a gun platform. There is nothing sophisticated about sneaking up on someone and killing him. Aerial combat is a blood sport, a knife in the dark. Winners live and losers die….

Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, pp. 42-43

Emphasis mine.