Springy swords vs. Rigid swords

Sword typology and Edge Weapons forms of the Chinese Empire and related cultures with an emphasis on their relationship to Swordsmanship.

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Springy swords vs. Rigid swords

Post by alfanator » Fri Apr 24, 2009 2:32 am

I am curious how the Chinese made their swords springy and not bend easily. Is it the type of steel, the forging tecnique, the shape? Is any thing given up to get this quality in the steel? Do they cut better than more rigid swords?

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Re: Springy swords vs. Rigid swords

Post by Nik » Fri Apr 24, 2009 8:01 am

You can influence this with the steel you use, but more important is the shape. Flattening the diamond shape of the blade means it flexes a lot easier.

And no, outside of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, this does not cut easier. In fact, you can only penetrate armors if you get in a perfect connect, otherwise it will just bend. Cutting gets less difficult, but still stiff edges cut better because it doesn't "flop around".

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Re: Springy swords vs. Rigid swords

Post by alfanator » Fri Apr 24, 2009 8:46 am

I have seen old J-swords bend when a cut was not done correctly, not good in a battle situation because you just have a crooked club after that. Perhaps if the steel was springy, the sword would simply flex and go back to true after a bad cut.

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Re: Springy swords vs. Rigid swords

Post by Nik » Fri Apr 24, 2009 11:58 am

You mean the blade took a bend and didn't flex back ? That seems more the result of bad hardening or a blade damaged at some point in time for example through fire losing it's structure. A properly made stiff blade should not take a bend under normal use circumstances. Of course, when you stick it into something and use all force to bend it, it eventually will. However, since I have no experience with long japanese blades I refrain from weighting in on possible make errors.

My smith made a couple of samples, some from inappropriate steel (they were only made for weight and balance experiments), and one to my own surprise also took a bend and stayed like that, when I exceeded a certain angle on testing it's flexibility. Afaik, every blade takes a bend at some degree of flexing when the flexibility degree of the steel is exceeded, but I didn't expect that to happen this early.

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Re: Springy swords vs. Rigid swords

Post by alfanator » Fri Apr 24, 2009 7:27 pm

Bending is not unheard of with J-swords matched with users that muscle a cut through a less than perfect plane. I have seen one bend 70 degrees from a backyard self-porclaimed 'sensei' cutting mats;) Although he was using a stainless steel WW2 Naval sword. I have also seen a shinto blade from a top smith that was slightly twisted, most likely an old damage that did not get repaired correctly. But generally speaking, i do not see any J-swords that could flex and spring back like some jians, but then again the Japanese sellers typically do not demostrate the flexibility of their swords like many Chinese dealers do.

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Re: Springy swords vs. Rigid swords

Post by Nik » Sat Apr 25, 2009 6:56 am

My smith's usual work is producing mIlitary sabers for todays armies, at least as long as they don't resort all to buying asian made crap with just a stamp from a former german forge.

So I can say that those sabers of the 20th century and today are made to certain specifications, requiring the blade to be damage-free bendable by typcially 90-120°. I'd venture a guess that the jian having a more pronounced diamond shape keeping a 3mm thickness up to the tip cannot bend like that, that's not possible.

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Re: Springy swords vs. Rigid swords

Post by Peter Dekker » Sat Apr 25, 2009 5:02 pm

alfanator wrote:Bending is not unheard of with J-swords matched with users that muscle a cut through a less than perfect plane. I have seen one bend 70 degrees from a backyard self-porclaimed 'sensei' cutting mats;) Although he was using a stainless steel WW2 Naval sword. I have also seen a shinto blade from a top smith that was slightly twisted, most likely an old damage that did not get repaired correctly. But generally speaking, i do not see any J-swords that could flex and spring back like some jians, but then again the Japanese sellers typically do not demostrate the flexibility of their swords like many Chinese dealers do.
There is a marked difference between most modern reproductions and historical grade steel. Modern steel is very pure, and has the ability to usually spring back after being bent. Old steel takes a permanent set much quicker. For us the modern variety is better because it is more forgiving when we deliver a bad cut. It is very hard to give a permanent set to a Huanuo blade. In the old days however the use of swords wasn't limited to soft, defenseless targets but they had to be fit to deal with powerful blows of other edged weapons. In these circumstances, I guess they probably wanted to stay on the safe side: As long as it's still in one piece, it is still pretty good for the parry and perhaps even a counter. A broken sword was probably near-certain death as it deprived one of both attack and defense against another edged weapon.

Paul Champagne, who left us too early, mentioned a couple of times the purpose of the tendency of bending in antique swords:
Paul Champagne wrote:It is always better for a sword to bend rather than break. This is universal across all cultures, there is very little evidence for through hardened springy swords in any culture until very late in the swords history.
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Re: Springy swords vs. Rigid swords

Post by alfanator » Sat Apr 25, 2009 6:25 pm

would it be safe to say that the swords made with modern steel are better than old steel in that they offer a good degree of rididity, resistence to bending and breakage? Do they tend to be more brittle and snap after a certian point?

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Re: Springy swords vs. Rigid swords

Post by Peter Dekker » Sat Apr 25, 2009 6:49 pm

For test-cutting, the swords of modern steel are definitely more forgiving and user-friendly because they are not likely to take a permanent set. This is also noted by Japanese cutters who are familiar with both traditionally made steel and more affordable replicas of modern stock steel. I have also noted that my modern reproductions don't rust as easily as an antique in full-polish, probably because the steel has less impurities in it.

I don't know if we can call them better though: old steel is generally much stiffer and will thus transfer more energy to the target. So in theory, an antique sword would cut a bit better but I wouldn't know how large that difference would be in practice. We also don't know how a modern blade would get out of a swordfight when having had to deal with some less than perfect deflections resulting in hard edge-edge contact.

I've once seen a large antique two-handed saber with a large chip out of the edge some 2/3rd up the blade. The rest of the blade was bent forward over the relatively large nick due to the impact, but still the whole was still rigid and fully serviceable with no crack in the edge. The chip was clean and round... It wasn't the best looking saber around anymore but it lived to fight another round. I don't know how our modern steel swords would perform under such tremendous stress, I am not aware of any tests performed on this area as of yet.

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Re: Springy swords vs. Rigid swords

Post by bond_fan » Tue Apr 28, 2009 11:14 pm

Hi Guys,

I never had the opportunity to talk to the great Paul Champagne, but I have talked to two notable blade smiths recently. The first is a maker of both Japanese and Chinese blades, who has been making all sorts of knives and swords since 1969 and trained under a well known Japanese polisher/smith. The other is Rick Barrett, who is another well known US custom maker of Japanese and fantasy swords. Barrett has been making swords since at least 1993 and also trained under a Japanese blades smith.

Both said modern steel is superior to old steel, because the exact content of the different chemicals used to make the steel is known. For example:

1. AISI 10xx: This plain carbon steel is an excellent choice for swords, (especially Japanese ones) and contains iron, manganese and carbon. The actual carbon content expressed as a percentage in the last two digits – i.e. AISI 1050 has .50% Carbon, AISI 1070 has .70% Carbon, etc. The higher the carbon content, the harder the steel. The lower the carbon content, the more tough the steel is. (From http://www.sword-buyers-guide.com/battl ... sword.html)

2. These steels are the steels most often forged. Stainless steels can be forged (guys like Sean McWilliams do forge stainless), but it is very difficult. In addition, carbon steels can be differentially tempered, to give a hard edge-holding edge and a tough springy back. Stainless steels are not differentially tempered. Of course, carbon steels will rust faster than stainless steels, to varying degrees. Carbon steels are also often a little bit less of a crap shoot than stainless steels -- I believe all the steels named below are fine performers when heat treated properly.

In the AISI steel designation system, 10xx is carbon steel, any other steels are alloy steels. For example, the 50xx series are chromium steels.

In the SAE designation system, steels with letter designations (e.g., W-2, A-2) are tool steels.

There is an ASM classification system as well, but it isn't seen often in the discussion of cutlery steels, so I'll ignore it for now.

Often, the last numbers in the name of a steel are fairly close to the steel's carbon content. So 1095 is ~.95% carbon. 52100 is ~1.0% carbon. 5160 is ~.60% carbon.

O-1 This is a steel very popular with forgers, as it has the reputation for being "forgiving". It is an excellent steel, that takes and holds an edge superbly, and is very tough. It rusts easily, however. Randall Knives uses O-1, so does Mad Dog.

W-2 Reasonably tough and holds an edge well, due to its .2% vanadium content. Most files are made from W-1, which is the same as W-2 except for the vanadium content (W-1 has no vanadium).

The 10-series -- 1095 (and 1084, 1070, 1060, 1050, etc.) Many of the 10-series steels for cutlery, though 1095 is the most popular for knives. When you go in order from 1095-1050, you generally go from more carbon to less, from better edge holding to less edge holding, and tough to tougher to toughest. As such, you'll see 1060 and 1050, used often for swords. For knives, 1095 is sort of the "standard" carbon steel, not too expensive and performs well. It is reasonably tough and holds an edge very well. It rusts easily. This is a simple steel, which contains only two alloying elements: .95% carbon and .4% manganese.

Carbon V Carbon V is a trademarked term by Cold Steel, and as such is not necessarily one particular kind of steel; rather, it describes whatever steel Cold Steel happens to be using, and there is an indication they do change steels from time to time. Carbon V performs roughly between 1095-ish and O-1-ish, in my opinion, and rusts like O-1 as well. I've heard rumors that Carbon V is O-1 (which I now think is unlikely) or 1095. Numerous industry insiders insist it is 0170-6. Some spark tests done by a rec.knives reader seem to point the finger at 50100-B. Since 50100-B and 0170-6 are the same steel (see below), this is likely the current Carbon V.

L-6 A band saw steel that is very tough and holds an edge well, but rusts easily. It is, like O-1, a forgiving steel for the forger. If you're willing to put up with the maintenance, this may be one of the very best steels available for cutlery, especially where toughness is desired.

(From - http://www.knifeart.com/steelfaqbyjo.html)

What this means is modern makers can more easily mix and match steels to get the desired mixture and results they want. Do they want a sword to cut well, hold an edge longer, be flexible or very stiff?

The reason the best older swords are laminated is the smiths didn't really know the exact chemical compound of their steel, so they had to have the layers to stabilize the steel. It's sort of like plywood, which would be stronger than one solid piece. Some people do chemical compositions of antique steel and by analyzing it they can determine what's in the steel. There is really no mystery or secret type of elements in old steel that cannot be duplicated in modern steel. The key differences is how the steel was heat treated/forge and maybe the alignment of any lamination.

Nowadays smiths do laminated swords to show their artistic talents in manipulation the layers of the metals or showing their skills in duplicating traditional methods. Mono steel swords, if properly built will perform as good as their modern laminated counter-parts.

In case you didn't know. older steel gets softer over time, because the elements become less stable and had a longer chance to do so.

The reason why modern steel might be less prone to rusting is certain elements in the steel are more rust resistant, it is not the presence of impurities.

To answer the initial question:
I am curious how the Chinese made their swords springy and not bend easily. Is it the type of steel, the forging tecnique, the shape? Is any thing given up to get this quality in the steel? Do they cut better than more rigid swords?
It is all of the above and the proper mixture of rigidity and flexibly is also key.

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Re: Springy swords vs. Rigid swords

Post by Peter Dekker » Wed Apr 29, 2009 6:29 am

Thanks for posting this nice and elaborate little essay! L-6 is supposed to be really good indeed, Howard Clarke made Japanese style blades out of it with incredible durability.

You are right, and I should have been more clear. When referring to "modern steel" I was referring to the steel most of us are most familiar with: that used in affordable, fully functional replicas such as Huanuo's. When looking in the higher price ranges the story gets different entirely.

I've talked with smiths who say they can match the rigidity of Chinese steel, but I've never had the chance to handle such a sword myself yet. Paying $ 4000-6000 for a single sword is normal in these circles, as opposed to what most martial artists would be exposed to.

On monosteel performing as folded steel, this would indeed be possible. But as to my current understanding, only under the condition that it was differentially heat treated to match the differences in hardness encountered in historical blades.

The edge of my folded saber with inserted hard edge plate holds up to cutting far better than any of the monosteel swords used by my fellow students, and my saber is slightly more rigid. The difference is even more noticeable among the folded sanmei and non-folded jian due to their shape.

This is not to say a monosteel sword can't be made to perform like that, but it does say that generally monosteel swords of most makers come with a uniform hardness that compensates how hard and thus how sharp and durable the edge can be.

On old steel, if it were a serious case of having to defend my life, I would be more tempted to rely on the antiques I collect. This is partly due to their great handling characteristics, and partly because the steel is of very good quality. I have a large saber that doesn't wobble at all when struck, it only hums. The edge is very hard, and the body is made of all kinds of softer layers. It endured sword cuts before and sustained minimal damage doing so. Even though they didn't have modern equipment and didn't know the exact contents of the steel or what that did, the one who made this one really knew what he was doing and this type of quality seems to have been rather standard at the time.

And although in theory we can produce steel that can perform better, and I fully agree with you on that that, I'd still like to see a new sword of a for all affordable price that has the rigidity that is characteristic of my antiques. So far I haven't seen any.

About impurities vs. elements in the steel, aren't they the same? As I understand the sulhpur, chromium, manganese and carbon contents all affect the way a steel is prone to rust. Some call them elements, but as they are "polluting" a steel body others call them "impurities". For steel rigidity, Andrew Jorden (http://www.jordanknives.com) stated that manganese is also an essential element that is often overlooked.

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Re: Springy swords vs. Rigid swords

Post by bond_fan » Wed Apr 29, 2009 4:10 pm

On monosteel performing as folded steel, this would indeed be possible. But as to my current understanding, only under the condition that it was differentially heat treated to match the differences in hardness encountered in historical blades.
For all steel to perform as it is being designed must be heat treated.
The edge of my folded saber with inserted hard edge plate holds up to cutting far better than any of the monosteel swords used by my fellow students, and my saber is slightly more rigid. The difference is even more noticeable among the folded sanmei and non-folded jian due to their shape.

It is interesting that you are using your folded saber for cutting. In a conversation I had with Rick Barrett last night he bemoaned the fact that the majority of his customers that purchased his folded steel sword were not using them for cutting, because they didn't want to scratch the finish of their "art" blade. Consequently, his reputation for san mai blades that cut well doesn't get the same excellent reviews as his mono steel swords, because no one is using the folded steel to cut with.
On old steel, if it were a serious case of having to defend my life, I would be more tempted to rely on the antiques I collect. This is partly due to their great handling characteristics, and partly because the steel is of very good quality. I have a large saber that doesn't wobble at all when struck, it only hums. The edge is very hard, and the body is made of all kinds of softer layers. It endured sword cuts before and sustained minimal damage doing so. Even though they didn't have modern equipment and didn't know the exact contents of the steel or what that did, the one who made this one really knew what he was doing and this type of quality seems to have been rather standard at the time.
I wouldn't trust an old sword, because one wouldn't know how much stress it has been through. Rodell Laoshi told me one time they were cutting with antique swords and the blade broke off and flew about 50 feet away. He said he was lucky no one was in the way or they could have been seriously hurt. He added it is not a good idea to cut with antique sword, because one wouldn't know if it's been struck 10,000 times or just one. That's why he cuts with modern swords.

I have heard his folded steel Huanao jian has been used in cutting over 1,000 times with showing signs of wear.
About impurities vs. elements in the steel, aren't they the same? As I understand the sulhpur, chromium, manganese and carbon contents all affect the way a steel is prone to rust. Some call them elements, but as they are "polluting" a steel body others call them "impurities". For steel rigidity, Andrew Jorden (http://www.jordanknives.com) stated that manganese is also an essential element that is often overlooked.
There really is not a 100% pure steel. One wouldn't want that, because it wouldn't perform correctly for the purpose of having a real fighting weapon. Other elements and compounds have to be mixed in to get the desired results the smith wants. For example some steel combination's work well for small bladed weapons like knives, but when drawn out in longer lengths they don't have the strength to hold their shape when faced with impacts a sword would take in battle.

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Re: Springy swords vs. Rigid swords

Post by bond_fan » Thu Apr 30, 2009 4:04 am

And although in theory we can produce steel that can perform better, and I fully agree with you on that that, I'd still like to see a new sword of a for all affordable price that has the rigidity that is characteristic of my antiques. So far I haven't seen any.
The question is how do you define "affordable"?

The problem is most large companies are in it to make money, so they make things as cheap as they can. Most companies are able to see original swords and copy their appearance, but not the method of manufacture. The reason they can't copy the method of manufacture is they are usually unable to handle said antiques and even if they did are not knowledgeable enough to determine the method of manufacture.

So what ends up happening is a great looking replica is made without the functional characteristics of the original.

Also, it still seems edged weapons for the most part are a hands on operation that requires the labor of humans. As such the costs are higher than machine made items and the quality is dependent upon the skills or lack of skills of the workers. If two out of five guys in the company are really good at forging swords and the other three not as good quality will suffer. Consequently, if an one man custom builder operation is great then the product will be great, but if he sucks it doesn't matter if he's a custom builder, charge a lot or not, his product will suck.

One must remember in most modern societies the cost of living is high. For a person to be afford to live and buy all the machinery necessary to make swords not including getting the proper training to do so is not inexpensive. I am told the cost to buy three of the main sharpening stones for polishing swords cost $800.00!
This is not to say a monosteel sword can't be made to perform like that, but it does say that generally monosteel swords of most makers come with a uniform hardness that compensates how hard and thus how sharp and durable the edge can be.
I am not sure if I am remembering the time period correctly, but Francis Boyd, a well versed blade smith of both Chinese and Japanese arms told me that the Chinese had the technology to make mono steel swords that could function as well as laminated swords as early as the Han dynasty. However, the reason why they still built laminated swords is metal fatigue. A mono steel swords would have lost it's temper before the laminated steel one.

Image (This is a cross section of a Francis Boyd four piece laminated sword done in the style of Japanese sword making school, Masamune. The lines are not surface scratches, but the view of the actual laminations.)

Footnote: In case long-term form readers are wondering where all of a sudden I started to sound very knowledgeable about sword manufacture, well I have spent the last month learning a great deal about sword manufacture from two very nice and accomplished US blade smiths, Francis Boyd and Rick Barrett. Boyd has allowed me to visit him and taught me a great deal about the manufacture of modern and antique weapons, both Japanese and Chinese.

I have talked in great lengths with Barrett over the phone. Usually most smiths can't be bothered with this type of interaction with customers, but perhaps in this economy they must to make ends meat or maybe they enjoy passing on their knowledge. Also, Rodell Laoshi, Phillip Tom and Peter Dekker, have also been very helpful in passing on their knowledge to me. In any event I am very grateful to be the beneficiary of this training!

Perhaps of interest of those interested in learning the art of Japanese sword making, Rick Barrett, is hosting a seminar on Japanese Sword Making Technique at is house from Sept. 11 - 13, 2009 (http://www.barrettcustomknives.com/news). Cost is only $950.00 and students will get a tanto made by Barrett in which they get to clay their own tanto for free. Guest instructors include his master, Japanese swordsmith Enomoto Sadahito, Randy Black, professional sword mounter and Iai instructor, Chris Osborne, Japanese sword polisher and Kevin Cashen, custom swordsmith and knifemaker. Tell him Tim sent you.

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Re: Springy swords vs. Rigid swords

Post by Nik » Thu Apr 30, 2009 6:09 am

Well. As mentioned, you can get monosteels with incredible performance, which harden to far above 60 HRC while being completely tearfree. However, these are well-kept secret processes used for military steel products like warships and gun barrels. You can buy the raw steel folded with another kind of steel for ~600 dollar per kilo.

My smith is using a high duty spring steel that oil hardens up to 60 HRC, which is used for most modern armies parade sabers (unless they ordered cheaply made crap made by subcontractors in China or India because the person controlling the order process was paid off). The medieval fencing group trained by Thomas Stoeppler near Bonn uses these with full, hard contact regularily since a year or two, and the hold up to hours of bi-weekly abuse, at a level of contact producing sparks flying. It's not necessary to have folded steel, but the thickness of the hardened zone has to match the blade size and steel attributes, otherwise it will take a bend or chips off on hard impact. For example, there was a problem when the polishers were overdoing their polishing, taking off too much of the hardened zone. These blades then, to the dismay of their buyers, chipped off little nicks at full contact. I will for that reason change the manufacturing process to ensure a defined thickness of the hard zone after polishing, which will then be more time consuming.

BTW, soft steels hardened to just 50 HRC are also not really contributing to a swords performance, so that can easily explain why "modern" mass products didn't cut as well as old, differentially heat treated ones. The difference between heat treating for example in oil, and differential heat treating usually with water, is that the latter requires to coat each single blade carefully by hand with a clay mixture in a defined thickness forming different zones. This results then in the edge having a much higher hardness than the body, i.e., you have only a very small, defined zone on the edge that is very hard. The shock dampening qualities of a laminated sword with these different zones of hardness are more refined, to reach this with a monosteel one, you have to create a very precise deepness of hardening the outer body creating a soft core with an exactly matching diameter. Mass production from hired hands will vary too much in this to ensure this quality over a sufficient percentage of the production. This is why that will only be done by two persons for the blades I develop, the smith master and the two polishing masters, who are both in their job for +30 years.

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Re: Springy swords vs. Rigid swords

Post by Scott M. Rodell » Thu Apr 30, 2009 8:01 am

Paul Champagne & I often discussed the many misconceptions concerning springy vs. rigid blades & how this leads to misunderstandings amongst practitioners of Historical Swordsmanship today. One thing practitioners always want is a blade that won't bend. Traditional blades bend more easily than do modern blades produced by the commercial forges. As explained above, modern steel is "better" than old traditional steels due to our modern knowledge of chemistry. This has lead to the creation of steel alloy blades that out preform traditionally made blades in that they are both tougher & less likely to bend or chip than the traditional blades. What this means in practice is that errors that would have resulted in a bent blade in the past, do not today. So one does not have to be as good a cutter/swordsman today to cut the same target as one would have had to be in the past. So all of us cutting today are less likely to become as good as we would if we used a traditional blade because we can get away with mistakes that we wouldn't if we used a traditional blade. So what modern practitioner are saying, without realizing it, when they ask for a blade that won't bend, is they want a blade that is strong enough to cover for errors in their technique.

If we take this one more step, the logical conclusion is that if one desires an historically accurate understanding of any system of historical swordsmanship, then we should cut & train with a traditionally forged blade. Unfortunately, a hand forged blade costs anywhere from $6000 to 10,000, where as a good quality mono-steel jian produced in China is around $500 with a folded steel blade using modern steels is typically just under $1,000 to $1,500.

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