Ground or Pound?
A Comparison of Forging and Stock Removal
An article by Patrick Kelly
The art of blade making is an ancient one. Many methods have been utilized over the centuries in an attempt to manufacture blades that are both strong and economical. In the modern world two methods are employed. These are the techniques of forging and stock removal.
First, we must define these terms. What is forging? What is meant by the term stock removal?
Forging is simply the method in which a blade is manufactured by the shaping of hot metal using the hammer and anvil. In ages past blade smiths utilized a charcoal or coal forge in which they heated their metal of choice. When sufficient temperature was reached the material was hot enough to be worked on an anvil. While the traditionally fueled forges are still in use, many modern smiths choose to use a gas-powered forge. This type of equipment is far cleaner, and easier, to use than the old methods. Temperatures are more easily controlled and maintained, thereby yielding a more consistent product.
Stock removal is rather self-explanatory. This is simply a method with which the hammering of hot metal is dispensed. A blade, be it a knife or a sword, is shaped by the removal of material from a length of steel barstock. This process is accomplished through the use of grinders and belt sanders. All specifics of the blade, length, width, thickness, etc., are achieved by the removal of material, not the reshaping of it.
A clear understanding of these methods is important because it allows the consumer to make an informed and educated decision. While understanding is important, the methods themselves are less so. Why? Because when one becomes familiar with the techniques in question it is made clear that they have little bearing on the durability and functionality of the final product. In fact, the two methods are more closely intertwined than many realize, or would like to admit. All forged blades are finished by a certain amount of grinding, however, ground blades need no forging.
The commonly held view of old world blade manufacture is that of a bladesmith working alone at his forge to fashion a sword from start to finish. While these events did indeed occur they were, in reality, far from the norm. Ancient arms making is in actuality far more "modern" than believed. In the medieval world work was accomplished in piecemeal fashion. Blades were manufactured in large centers of production, many throughout Europe and in the Rhineland area in particular. Blades were fashioned by guilds of artisans who utilized their own versions of power equipment. While the forge and anvil were used so were large grinding, or milling, wheels. These were large contraptions powered by human means, or often water powered as well. Many contemporary illustrations show workmen seated at, or lying prone over, the medieval equivalent of the modern belt grinder. Modern smiths also reap the benefits of power hammers. There is evidence that points to similar medieval contrivances.
Blades were forged, shaped, and then polished before being exported to various locations, where a local cutler would mount them in the latest fashion. The medieval world was a much more cosmopolitan place than is commonly believed. Every product had its consumer base and swords were no exception. The one-man forge operation simply would not have been able to keep up with the demand.
Why is all of this important? Mainly so that the sword buyer can answer that ultimate question before making a purchase. The question of "Which one is better?"
Why is forging superior? Much has been made of forging's ability to compress and realign the steel's grain structure, thereby increasing the durability of the blade. In reality though this may, in fact, be of little benefit. The argument can be made that, while this realignment of grain structure is accomplished, it is not consistent enough to be of real value. In order for consistency to be obtained the hammer must strike the steel in the same manner, with the same amount of force and direction, throughout the length and breadth of the blade. This is impossible to accomplish when the human element is factored in. On the other hand, forging does have real and tangible benefits that cannot be achieved through stock removal. It is impossible to obtain the effects of pattern welding through any means other than forging. The folding and twisting of metals, used to achieve this most beautiful of blade types, can only be accomplished through the use of hammer and anvil. Exotic blade shapes are also more easily achieved through forging. Blades with severe curvature, or multiple fullers and angles, are more efficiently fashioned with a hammer than with a grinder.
Why is stock removal superior? In many ways stock removal is the more efficient process. Standard blade shapes can be produced faster, and with greater consistency when modern equipment is utilized. When CNC type machinery is used blades can be produced that are virtually identical from one to another, from piece to piece. In terms of production, this will speed things up tremendously. If blades are identical, then the fitting of pommel, guard, etc. will not vary. The time-consuming task of hand-fitting components is largely eliminated. Precision and lack of variance are very important to modern sensibilities. Our medieval ancestors did not necessarily share these convictions.
If a blade's fuller wandered a bit, or if the guard wasn't perfectly aligned, it wasn't necessarily a big deal so long as the sword functioned properly. In the here and now these variances are seen as a lack of quality. Precision is, of course, much easier to achieve through the use of modern methods and equipment.
Now that the attributes of both methods have been examined can we answer the big question "Which one is better?" Of course we can, since the answer is ultimately this...
Both methods have their attributes and disadvantages. One method may be, ultimately, more durable than the other. There is, however, a point of diminishing returns. If properly executed, both will result in a blade that is as durable as any collector or user can ask for. The real factor that determines a blade's quality is not found in the method of its manufacture, or even the specific type of steel used. The real key lies in the blade's heat-treatment. A blade made from the best steel, forged or not, will fail if improperly heat-treated.
Ultimately we have to ask ourselves "Why bother?" If forging is more labor intensive and time consuming what's the point? For many collectors, a sword's functionality is only one part of the picture. An appreciation of a sword's historic appeal can only be reached if the sword has been made through the process of hammer and anvil, in the "old" way. A CNC machine cannot be a part of that ancient tradition of which many makers, and collectors, wish to be a part. Likewise, many martial arts students see no need in the extra expense of a forged blade, one that will only become scuffed and worn through use and require eventual replacement. Still others appreciate the perfection of line, and exactness of proportion, that can only be achieved through the use of modern equipment.
At the end of the day there are many factors that will influence a sword buyer's decision. The question of "forged or ground" should be low on the list of priorities.
About the Author
Patrick is a State Trooper serving with the Kansas Highway Patrol. He has been fascinated with edged weapons, particularly the medieval sword, since early childhood. Not only is Patrick thankful for any opportunity to indulge in his favorite hobby, he is also blessed with a wife who tolerates a house full of sharp pointy things.