Did the Hittites have iron weapons?

#1
I've written this blog article examining the commonly-held belief that, during the Bronze Age, the Hittites were armed with superior iron weapons:
Bronze Age lightsabers: did the Hittites have iron weapons?

I'm coming from a largely layman point of view - I'm certainly not a metallurgist, though I've learned a lot in that field over the last few years. Overall, it seems to me that while the Hittites did appear to be involved in advanced experimentation with ironworking during the Late Bronze Age, they never fully mastered the art (e.g. to the extent that they could furnish their armies with iron weapons).

Anyway, interested to hear what people's opinions are on the matter.




A Hittite sword housed at the Essen Museum. A rare specimen for it is fashioned with a bronze handle... and an iron blade!
 
Jan 2015
2,950
MD, USA
#3
Ack, where to start. Well, that sword is a fake, first off. The orange blade (active rust) with VERY little damage combined with the green hilt is a classic red flag--I've seen dozens of fakes in nearly identical condition, claiming to be all manner of things. No idea if it actually looks like a Hittite sword, but I'm doubtful.

Both those blogs are filled with misconceptions and bad metallurgy. YOU DO NOT NEED TO REACH THE MELTING POINT OF IRON TO *SMELT* IT. In fact, you don't even *want* to, because that yields cast iron, which has way too much carbon so it can't be hammered to shape. At all. When bloomeries did yield cast iron, it was generally treated as a waste product. The SMELTING temperature for iron is about 1250 degrees C, not really that much above the melting point of copper, so it could be achieved by the ancients with known technology.

SMELTING is NOT just *melting* metal out of ore. Ore is an OXIDE of metal, and removing the unwanted oxygen atoms at a molecular level is a chemical reaction, requiring carbon monoxide (from the fire), plus the heat to drive the reaction. Note that this is very different from forging, which is simply heating the purified metal in an open fire (a proper forge, not just a cookfire) before working. Generally, copper and bronze are hammered cold, with repeated heatings and quenchings to anneal (soften) the metal, which hardens with hammering--too much hammering will cause it to crack. Iron was worked hot, and things like blade edges were again hardened with some cold hammering. But the sorts of hardening and tempering with heat and quenching that we are familiar with today were not generally attempted in ancient times, in large part because their iron rarely had enough carbon to make that beneficial. Steel did exist, in fact some carbon content is pretty much unavoidable when smelting iron, but it wasn't a perfect science, and remember that craftsmen kept their secrets to themselves! But it wasn't the high-carbon steels that we use so freely today. Various things were tried to improve iron and steel, such as adding sulfur or phosphorous, or sometimes these elements were simply present in higher amounts because of variations in the ore, or the smelting process, or the forging fuels, etc.

There are any number of good videos on Youtube that show iron being smelted from ore, and the resulting bloom being hammered while white-hot to remove slag. When the process is understood, the technology and procedures are simply not that difficult.

Good high-tin bronze that was hammer-hardened, as was commonly used for swords and armor in the Bronze Age, is HARDER than most any iron or steel the ancients could produce. Bronze is very tough, not brittle, and the bronze swords of that time were *highly* refined and sophisticated lethal weapons. Any word like "crude" is not only ignorant, but an insult the the incredibly talented craftsmen of those days. Early iron swords were still perfectly functional, and wrought iron is also very tough and malleable. It did NOT "shatter". It is possible that some iron items had hidden flaws like slag inclusions, but the same could be said for bronze weapons. And as I said, the craftsmen of the day were skilled enough that such fatal flaws were VERY rare indeed. Remember, most weapons were being produced for the aristocracy, so there were no weapon-makers who were "less competent".

The first blog says, "There is only one thing we can say with any certainty: the Hittites certainly never had an army equipped throughout with super-hard 'Good Iron' weapons. If they did have, they would have flattened all of their opponents." No. Seriously, just NO. Why on earth are people so convinced that iron weapons gave such an advantage to *anyone*??? The first iron swords were no better than bronze ones, and would have been carried by kings. The only advantage was that iron ore was so much more plentiful than copper and tin that once its smelting and working processes became more common, it was far easier to make weapons in larger numbers, allowing *armies* to be equipped where once there were only warbands. But that change took generations if not centuries. The whole concept of iron-armed armies sweeping away the "primitive" bronze-wielders is ludicrous.

Also, the production of bronze *increased* dramatically in the Iron Age. It only makes sense, since populations and economies were very much on the rise across the board. Within a few hundred years of the introduction of ironworking, we see far more bronze armor and domestic items than existed before.

Well, that's a start. I hope it helps.

Matthew
 
#4
Thanks for the detailed and very helpful reply, Matthew.
"The whole concept of iron-armed armies sweeping away the "primitive" bronze-wielders is ludicrous." - that's exactly the 'myth' I was trying to tackle with my blog. Although I don't have the level of metallurgical knowledge that you do, I was comfortable enough by the end of my research to be sure that it was indeed a myth.

Lots of point you make make good sense, though I would quibble with a few of them (but don't have the time for a detailed response just now), e.g. poorly-crafted iron swords not being liable to shear or break.

Anyway, thanks again!
 

Scaeva

Ad Honorem
Oct 2012
5,630
#6
No sword can cut through armour and a blade doesn't need much of an edge to penetrate flesh. No battle was determined by the types of sword that one side carried.
People often tend to underrate bronze weapons and armor as well. Popular opinion is that they were all a bit ****.

That would have been news to the Romans, who were still using bronze helms deep into the Iron Age.
 
Aug 2014
4,683
Australia
#7
As Matt said, work-hardened tin bronze has a hardness that is better than similar items made from iron. It's mechanical properties are similar to unhardened medium carbon steel.
 
Likes: Scaeva
Jan 2011
164
#8
No sword can cut through armour
Being pedantic, but it depends on the type of sword and the type of armour (e.g. a steel sword vs soft leather armour)! But yeah when you're talking metal vs metal and specifically iron and bronze, I agree. That's what I found perplexing - the conception that iron swords could chop through bronze.
 
Jan 2011
164
#9
What are people's thoughts on the Essen sword? Matt reckons it's a fake. As far as I can see it is still regarded as authentic. Is it Hittite? Not sure - it doesn't have the curved tip that Hittite reliefs generally show.
1564649104450.png
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,683
Australia
#10
Being pedantic, but it depends on the type of sword and the type of armour (e.g. a steel sword vs soft leather armour)! But yeah when you're talking metal vs metal and specifically iron and bronze, I agree. That's what I found perplexing - the conception that iron swords could chop through bronze.
There is no such thing as soft leather armour. Armour was designed to stop points - spears and arrows - not swords. You don't need armour to stop a sword cut. Winter clothing will stop a sword cut.
 
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