Ancient cutlery steel Vs Modern knife steels


April 7, 2003, 03:53 AM
I have many friends who are into SCA activities and INSIST that during re-enactments their field cutlery be made using the technolgy and materials of the 14th and 15th centuries.

My question is how do modern steels like ATS-34, BG-42, AUS6 and various tool steels compare with "ancient" blade steels like damascus steel or the stuff they used to make swords out of in Toledo, Spain?

Do old style steels still have their place in modern cutlery (besides for nostalgia, decorative or re-enactment purposes)?

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April 7, 2003, 08:16 AM
Most of the old world steels would not be up to the task of the modern day steels with the exception of the old world japanese masters who made the samurai swords [their techniques were perfected and passed from father to son over many centuries ], and another possiblity being the persian damascus blades in the Middle East.


Chris Rhines
April 7, 2003, 10:21 AM
Most 'ancient' steels are very similar to O1, 1095, and other fairly simple high-carbon tool steels.

How they perform depends in a large part on heat treat, but in general I would rather have an O1 blade than any stainless steel you can name. High-carbon steel just plain holds a better edge longer.

Medevel Japanese swords actually had extremely poor metallurgy, as Japan had very little in the way of high-quality iron deposits. Most Japanese bladeware was made from a steel similar to W1 (same thing that many files are made from today), sometimes forged around a solid iron core. W1 is a very brittle steel. The amazing thing about Japanese swords is not that the materials were very good, but that the smiths were able to get such impressive performance out of such substandard materials.

- Chris

Scott Evans
April 7, 2003, 11:06 AM
There is no comparison. Modern steels, properly selected for a given task, far out pace what was possible to create at a simple forge. Varity available and the consistent repeatability of process in use today would be unimaginable to the masters of old.

April 7, 2003, 11:08 AM
When blades are longer, they need to be able to withstand shock. Long, brittle blades cannot withstand shock properly and they will tend to break. Stainless steels like ATS-34 and AUS-6 are great for smaller blades since flexibility is not an issue. Stainless steel adds chromium in the mix which makes it stain less plus it also makes the structure of the metal more brittle. For swords, stick with carbon steel blades like 1095, O1, etc.

April 7, 2003, 12:02 PM
Hundreds of years ago metallurgy was an art , today it is a science. Today you have a much better selection and far more consistant. Those that make swords today ( usable not decorative ) use O1, L6, or 5160. Of course half the problem is to choose the steel the other half is to heat treat it. Chris is right ,it's amazing what the old timers did considering the steels and equopment that they had.

Don Gwinn
April 7, 2003, 12:35 PM
Don't forget that your friends are probably not really having blades made with 14th century technology, because there's no one out there except a few hobbyists producing steel in this fashion (wind-powered hilltop furnaces and such.) Most people who ARE using the old smithing techniques are using scrap metal, which is still modern steel. And frankly, there are a lot of BS artists at SCA and Renaissance Faire events.

No, most ancient steels were not in the same class as the carefully-controlled alloys of today. But there were artists capable of creating marvellous things. Wootz, in some respects, has never been equalled. When it was rediscovered there was talk of using it in aerospace applications where modern alloy steel would have been cheaper. It didn't work out, as far as I know, because they haven't figured out how to produce it in large amounts. I suppose that's disappointing, but to a small-time smith who enjoys the art there's something comforting about it.

Much is made about the old Japanese steel used in swords and the magical properties imparted by folding it. In truth, the folding may have increased the strength somewhat by allowing a bit more flexibility at the same thickness, but it seems to my non-expert mind that its main purpose was to spread out and assimilate areas of impurity created by the use of Japanese "Iron Sands" to make the steel. In other words, all the careful folding was simply what had to be done to make the steel useful for sword smithing. Make no mistake--I am not questioning the amazing skills of Japanese smiths at the height of their importance. They created wonderful stuff for the time, and their work would compare favorably with the best things being made today. But no, the steel they had to work with was not in the same league as what Don Fogg, for instance, uses today. They accomplished what they did despite bad steel.

April 7, 2003, 02:45 PM
You know how that fish your uncle caught back when you were 12 has somehow gotten to be bigger, and a more epic fighter, every year since then? Well, medieval blades were around long before we were 12, and have quite a head start on that fish... For every Masamune or Weyland, there were a million "Joe-Bob the Crosseyed Blacksmiths". ;)

April 9, 2003, 02:19 AM
Modern steel is by far better. Stainless steel is all too often used in commercial swords/knives, which isn't the best material for steel on steel fighting. Carbon steel is best for that, in general.

April 9, 2003, 07:38 AM
Unless your friends are paying over $1000 a piece for knives and swords they certainly are not having their weapons made in the "traditional" way. What they are doing is having materials already available forged into period patterns.

April 9, 2003, 08:45 AM
I think there's a whole lot of hype about those Japanese swords that just gets deeper as the years go by. I believe the folding was to get the impurities to the surface where they could be removed from the mix.

Never saw enough Euro stuff that survived except in museums.

Byron Quick
April 10, 2003, 06:34 PM
The only superior steel that was produced in olden times was the true Damascus or Wootz as Don mentioned. It was also the only steel that was superior consistently from batch to batch. Pattern welded blades were developed by the Nordic smiths to deal with working with wildly varying steels. So were the techniques developed by the Japanese. The smiths in other areas basically did two things with a bloom. A bloom would vary from cast iron to fairly high carbon steel in one bloom. They'd pick out the best steel (spark test) for their best customers. The barely passable would go for the support troops.
It was only in the 1800's that we finally learned how to make large amounts of consistent steel.

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