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Forum Index > Historical Arms Talk > Viking swords found still sharp? Reply to topic
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Federico Tyrawskyj




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PostPosted: Mon 02 Apr, 2012 5:51 pm    Post subject: Viking swords found still sharp?         Reply with quote

Hey guys!

I met a blacksmith this weekend that gave a presentation on japanese sword making, and he was under the impression that European swords were not really sharp, giving as an example viking swords. I disagreed strongly :P . Now, I remember reading somewhere that some viking swords were found in a river and they were still sharp enough to cut paper despite the centuries. Would anyone be able to point me back to where I read such a thing? It must be a credible source somewhere, but I really don't remember, and I want to prove him wrong with a proper citation and not just something I remember reading!

Thanks!
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Chris Godby




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PostPosted: Mon 02 Apr, 2012 7:20 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Federico,
I also remember reading something along those lines. I am not certain but for some reason I want to say it is this sword: http://www.yorkshiremuseum.org.uk/Page/ViewCo...ctionId=21
Again, I am not 100% on that, but the preservation I very good and I have been in to see it several times. Sadly, I am not in York any longer so I can't double check!
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James Arlen Gillaspie




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PostPosted: Mon 02 Apr, 2012 7:57 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I have worked on a fair number of swords (mostly great swords, strangely enough, and the odd longsword) and polearms, and handled a lot of stuff in reserve collections of museums, and they have all had an edge, and out towards the tips had spots that were often wicked sharp. What amazed me most were the edges of the three monster ten and a quarter pound bearing swords I've had through my hands, which were bitter blades, indeed. They may not have been used in battle, but they were made to serve for crowd control in a pinch. I once handled a Danish axe that was a bog find that was just about sharp enough to shave with. It would cut paper, all right.
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Scott Woodruff




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PostPosted: Tue 03 Apr, 2012 8:49 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

In "Swords of the Viking Age" Ian Pierce says of a 5th or 6th C sword blade "Both cutting edges are in excellent condition and bear evidence of much use. Indeed, both cutting edges remain extremely sharp." I think that there are other swords in the book that are described as being still sharp. Also, iirc, Oakeshott mentions some still-sharp blades in "Archaeology of Weapons." Beyond that, I would say that anyone who knows the first thing about how weapons work would see that Viking Age swords are designed to be very sharp. Everything about them, from cross-section to profile shape to mass distribution makes it obvious that they were designed to cut deeply into flesh. The sagas and other concurrent writings also make it clear that Viking Age swords were capable of devastating cuts. For decades, we as a the hoplological community have been battling the old myths, but old myths die hard, especially if they are backed up by cultural bias ( not suggesting that that is the case here, but it often is.) I sincerely hope that you are able to have a consructive conversation with this person and bring them over to a place of greater respect for and admiration of the weapons of all cultures.
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Federico Tyrawskyj




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PostPosted: Tue 03 Apr, 2012 9:41 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks guys, I'll review those leads shortly.

Scott Woodruff wrote:
In "Swords of the Viking Age" Ian Pierce says of a 5th or 6th C sword blade "Both cutting edges are in excellent condition and bear evidence of much use. Indeed, both cutting edges remain extremely sharp." I think that there are other swords in the book that are described as being still sharp. Also, iirc, Oakeshott mentions some still-sharp blades in "Archaeology of Weapons." Beyond that, I would say that anyone who knows the first thing about how weapons work would see that Viking Age swords are designed to be very sharp. Everything about them, from cross-section to profile shape to mass distribution makes it obvious that they were designed to cut deeply into flesh. The sagas and other concurrent writings also make it clear that Viking Age swords were capable of devastating cuts. For decades, we as a the hoplological community have been battling the old myths, but old myths die hard, especially if they are backed up by cultural bias ( not suggesting that that is the case here, but it often is.) I sincerely hope that you are able to have a consructive conversation with this person and bring them over to a place of greater respect for and admiration of the weapons of all cultures.


Thank you. He was actually very interested in the answer I gave him concerning viking swords. He's quite open minded, but his extreme specialization in Japanese weapons is probably to blame for the misconception. I'm sure he'll be very interested in the extra information I want to bring him.
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Peter Johnsson




PostPosted: Tue 03 Apr, 2012 10:52 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

This is a very common misconception.

I would go as far as to say that the sharpness found on a viking sword is comparable to that found on a Katana.

A cross section through the edge will show you an extremely similar edge geometry.

I have personally handled and documented at least one viking sword from the 9th or 10th century that was sharp enough to cut paper. I felt its sharpness through the cotton glove I was wearing.
In places this particular sword has its original surface and polish preserved under a thin and hard black patina. See image below. This is a window directly into the viking age. I hope the picture can convey the beautifully defined geometry of the edge. It has the same excellent cutting characteristics that the Katana is so famous for.



 Attachment: 97.33 KB, Viewed: 3131 times
Mönster i ränna 2.jpg

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Bartek Strojek




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PostPosted: Tue 03 Apr, 2012 11:07 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

There's also that common assumption that any sword has to be silly sharp and all around... Kind of sharpness fetish. Wink
Some sword weren't very sharp at all, and still worked beautifully fort heir intended purposes.

On The Arma site they have this video of some Raven armory sword that's blunt enough to not cut into body at all while drawing it along the skin.... Still cuts right trough tatami mat and some wood.

Obviously that's experiment in exaggeration, as blunt sword that can mostly hew stuff with very powerful chops wouldn't be all that useful, but it displays the general idea.
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Nat Lamb




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PostPosted: Tue 03 Apr, 2012 6:06 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I was going to start a thread to ask this question, but it fits nicely here. Not including the secondary bevel, what is the angle of the edge for swords from different types/periods? I realise that this is to do with profile as much as sharpening, but the two things obviously work together.
Using a hexagonal sword as an example (because of simplicity compared to lenticular) if one looks at the profile of a blade, and bisects it horizontally, what is the angle of the “cutting face” from the horizontal?
I realize that there is obviously no single answer, I am more wanting to find out if there are “ranges”. Does the angle generally stay constant along a given blade’s length ? Does it vary widely within swords of a given type, or is there an “average” that they tend towards?
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Johan Gemvik




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PostPosted: Wed 04 Apr, 2012 3:41 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

What an amazing topic! What a treat!

I read in a forum ways back that Peter had handled a still sharp viking sword find. That's why I sharpen my viking swords to where they cut paper easily. Now I know there are more than one find of these as well as axes also kept razor keen and multiple sources to quote.

Since I demonstrate cutting with viking weapons compared to japanese sometimes at demos I often get questions about the sharpness. Now I have even better answers and references to give.

"The Dwarf sees farther than the Giant when he has the giant's shoulder to mount on" -Coleridge
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William P




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PostPosted: Wed 04 Apr, 2012 5:40 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

at one recent community fair, my group constantly got asked questions about the sharpness of swords
and I continually pointed out how flat and thin the axes we had were, and reminding them of the contrast with wood chopping axes which usually have a pretty steep cutting angle by comparison in order to showcase that they were designed for cutting flesh

one person asked the question that an ultrasharp sword wil get damaged more easily whereas a blunter sword can still case a fair amount of damage,

i conceded this point that blunt swords can still do a lot of damage, but a sharper edge still has all the sweight that a blunter one has, and can also do things a blunter sword cant like little slices and slashes to vital spots like hands, necks and eyes etc, not deep blows but just making a sawing motion with the blade against the opponents body. or flicking cuts with the tip.
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Scott Woodruff




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PostPosted: Wed 04 Apr, 2012 8:52 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Nat, I would say that 20-25 degrees would be about average( total, so 10-12.5 from horizontal, if I understand correctly.) Long experience has shown us that this is about ideal for cutting flesh. There are others far more knowledgeable than I on this forum, so perhaps one of them will back me up or correct me if I am wrong. Of course there is a lot of variation between types and within types. As for bevel changes along the length, I would say that a typical Viking Age sword either keeps a fairly consistent bevel along its length or becomes a little more acute as you get nearer to the tip. A type XV on the other hand will usually have a bevel that gets steeper towards the point. One of the hardest things for me about grinding the pointier swords is "twisting" the bevel so that it smoothly gets steeper near the point, going from a quite flat diamond to almost square in the last mm or 2 or 3. I would love to hear from Peter or any of the others more knowledgeable than I on this topic.
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Aleksei Sosnovski




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PostPosted: Thu 05 Apr, 2012 12:32 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I also would like to know how acute were the edges on different authentic swords. From one side, the sharper the sword the better it cuts which is good. But from the other side, there in always come hard stuff in the way of the blade. Other weapons, shields, armor and bones. Even modern kitchen knives are often sharpened at about 40 degrees angle (and ironically they often have the same hardness as most modern sword reproductions, about 50-52 HRC). Wouldn't a sword with a much more acute edge and made of softer steel be too prone to damage?
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Scott Woodruff




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PostPosted: Thu 05 Apr, 2012 5:56 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

To quote Peter Johnsson " When I study ancient swords I see how the edge is the important aspect of most any design, regardless of metallurgy or quality of steel. Edges can be very acute and blades shaped with a sense for eliminating dead meat. Many times, ancient swords are built in a way that goes against out notion that a sword needs to be "Strong" before anything else. Such a notion leads to flawed reasoning."

Aleksie, 40 degrees is really obtuse for a knife, though I am sure there are some such. A lot of swords have a very acute edge bevel of less than 20 degrees or even less than 15, but with a convex grind leaving the final edge at more like 25-30. These are just general ballpark figures for cut-oriented swords, it would be nice if Peter or one of the other more knowledgeable forumnites would give us some specific examples. It seem that I remember reading something Michael Pearce said about edge geometry, I will see if I can dig it up.
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Peter Johnsson




PostPosted: Fri 06 Apr, 2012 2:32 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I have written so many times about sharpness of swords that I begin to tire.

When I get to write my book (-the mirage on the horizon for so many years now), it will include examples of edge geometry of many original swords.

If you have a good geometry of the cross section of the blade and the edge itself, it does not have to be honed to paper cutting sharpness to be very effective.
But I do not doubt that swords *were* scarily sharp many (most of?) times.
They were sharp enough to cut flesh. As sharp or sharper than the kitchen knives most of us have in the drawers of the kitchen. -But with the edge geometry of a sword, not that of a kitchen knife.
They were as sharp as their owners needed and had the energy to maintain, I guess.
-How sharp is a pocket knife? As sharp as you want and need it to be!
And then, most pocket knives today are not made with anything near the understanding of edge geometry that ancient sword were.
If you look at the forensic evidence; bones with cut marks found on battle sites, you will get proof of the kind of sharpness we can expect swords to have had.
-Have you noticed how, when archaeologists and osteologists comment on the character of the cuts in and through bones, they often say something like: -"this bone was severed with a very sharp edge!" ?

If a sword is a bit less than absolutely sharp, it does not mean it is something like a film prop, or a reenactors free fight sword. Swords were not like steel clubs designed to inflict blunt trauma. They inflicted blunt trauma when blows connected through armour. They were designed to have a cutting edge and a piercing point.

If you could please erase the idea that swords were designed to bash against armour all day long. Some swords are indeed very sturdy: they are made for very heavy use. They are called Great Swords of War. And yet, they have cutting edges!
How sharp? -Sharp enough to cut, when used in correct manner, against intended targets.

I hate the saying "A sword is essentially nothing but a sharpened bar of steel".
It is the same as saying: "A knight is essentially nothing but a tin can filled with human flesh".
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Sam Barris




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PostPosted: Fri 06 Apr, 2012 6:03 am    Post subject: Re: Viking swords found still sharp?         Reply with quote

Federico Tyrawskyj wrote:
I met a blacksmith this weekend that gave a presentation on japanese sword making, and he was under the impression that European swords were not really sharp, giving as an example viking swords. I disagreed strongly.

Well, your blacksmith friend is quite obviously mistaken, and since many Viking swords have been found in somewhat less than mint condition, he does a disservice by using that as his example. I'll try to refrain from chiding him for using an almost comically vague term like "European sword," as though a messer and a rapier are really exactly the same thing, and for not knowing that blade geometry in fact varies wildly by type, because most people are guilty of these things. I wonder, though, given his respect for the katana, if he could explain the difference between, say, the shobu zukuri and shinogi zukuri blade styles. Was this man an actual tosho or togishi? I guess I'm curious as to whether he was speaking from deep knowledge about his own field while harboring misconceptions about another, or whether he bangs out horseshoes most of the time and received his knowledge of swords mainly from Hollywood.

In any event, there are enough European swords that have survived in very good condition to blow the man's position out of the water whether or not you find the specific Viking sword you're looking for.

Pax,
Sam Barris

"Any nation that draws too great a distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards, and its fighting done by fools." —Thucydides
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Scott Woodruff




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PostPosted: Fri 06 Apr, 2012 7:59 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thank you Peter. I imagine it must be tiring indeed to have us all constantly nagging you with questions like children. That is the cost of being so knowledgeable and well-respected, I guess. Like many others, I look forward to the day when you have completed your book. (I am sure it will be well worth the wait, no matter how long that might be.)

So, Aleksei, it seems that perod swords show such variation that you really can't go wrong as long as your bevel is within reason. I will take the fact that Peter did not correct me to mean that the above figures are at least within the range of "normal" for an authentic cutting sword.
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Peter Johnsson




PostPosted: Fri 06 Apr, 2012 8:35 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I am sorry. I realize the way I said this was arrogant.

I guess my outburst comes from the fact that there are many who are willing to testify about the nature of the european sword without any first hand knowledge of the originals (like the black smith in the beginng of this thread, who testified to the lack of sharpness of viking swords). There is so much conjecture based on hearsay, popular fiction and perhaps conclusions drawn from experiences in free fighting with "live" steel weapons.
There is so much medieval-market-facts, or renaissance-fair-science that shapes the modern conception of the sword.

And I guess I just went and said something arrogant again!

...Ahh.
Please read what I just said in the light of kind understanding.
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Patrick De Block




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PostPosted: Fri 06 Apr, 2012 11:57 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Peter,

You are forgiven. Razz .

But ... since I've read your article in the Park Lane Arms Fair Catalogue, you will not be forgiven if you don't publish that book soon. Big Grin
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Federico Tyrawskyj




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PostPosted: Fri 06 Apr, 2012 3:18 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Peter Johnsson wrote:
I am sorry. I realize the way I said this was arrogant.

I guess my outburst comes from the fact that there are many who are willing to testify about the nature of the european sword without any first hand knowledge of the originals (like the black smith in the beginng of this thread, who testified to the lack of sharpness of viking swords). There is so much conjecture based on hearsay, popular fiction and perhaps conclusions drawn from experiences in free fighting with "live" steel weapons.
There is so much medieval-market-facts, or renaissance-fair-science that shapes the modern conception of the sword.

And I guess I just went and said something arrogant again!

...Ahh.
Please read what I just said in the light of kind understanding.


No worries Mr. Johnsson, I didn't perceive what you said as arrogance. With knowledge comes confidence, and such statements coming from a guy like me would indeed be arrogance, not confidence.

As for the smith I mentionned, I did send him more information based on this thread and some references from the Ian Pierce book. He was grateful and open minded, admitting his lack of knowledge. I would rather not identify him though, out of respect.

Federico
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Aleksei Sosnovski




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PostPosted: Fri 06 Apr, 2012 4:24 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Scott Woodruff wrote:

Aleksie, 40 degrees is really obtuse for a knife, though I am sure there are some such. A lot of swords have a very acute edge bevel of less than 20 degrees or even less than 15, but with a convex grind leaving the final edge at more like 25-30. These are just general ballpark figures for cut-oriented swords, it would be nice if Peter or one of the other more knowledgeable forumnites would give us some specific examples. It seem that I remember reading something Michael Pearce said about edge geometry, I will see if I can dig it up.


40 degrees is not "really obtuse" at all, though of course more obtuse than I sharpen my knives (and I do sharpen them well). One of my self-made swords is 6 mm thick and about 20 mm wide near the point which makes sharpening angle right about 40 degrees. Maybe a bit more since the grind is not perfectly flat but a little convex. Believe me, this sword will cut off your hand or cut your leg right to the bone.

25-30 degrees sounds reasonable, but a sword could obviously have a much more obtuse edge end still be able to cut reasonably well. So I want to find out how were different swords sharpened. I would expect to see a considerable variation between different types of swords, between different swords of the same general type and purpose and even between different parts of the same blade.
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