Steel weapons

Naima

Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
2,323
Venice
When the first steel weapons appeared ? And what is true steel? I have read a lot of times here and there about steel weapons beeing used but then I read contraddicting affirmations like those weapons were not really steel ... So whats a strel weapon like? Who used them on mass scale? When? What different types of steel weapons are there in history?what is their evolution?
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
2,984
MD, USA
Well, it's complicated! It is actually quite difficult to make bloomery iron without some carbon content. And at a particular level of carbon we call the mixture "steel", though of course the ancients didn't make that distinction. And both iron and steel will have a range of carbon and other elements, some as impurities and some added, then subjected to a wide range of hammering and possibly heat treatments. *Hardness* is not always necessarily the main objective.

In any case, I *believe* there is detectable steel in ancient Greek blades, though apparently VERY few have been tested in any way. So they were above just a high-carbon iron. They probably were not heat-treated, though, since that seems to have been very sporadic and iffy in results through most of the Roman period.

It was also hard to produce a piece of steel with a good carbon content by means of those early forging techniques, so it was more common to make an iron implement and forge-weld on a steel cutting edge. That was happening right through the 19th century, in fact.

Gotta run, more in a minute!

Matthew
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
2,984
MD, USA
Anyway, we were talking about iron and steel over on the Bronze Age Center board recently, and there are apparently a few instances of what seem to be quenched steel (arrowheads, in the case mentioned) dating back to the 6th or 7th century BC. Quenching *swords* may have been seen as more problematic because of the risk of ending up with something brittle--not as big a deal wth an arrowhead. So sticking with hammer-hardening of iron and steel, as was done with bronze, was often seen as "good enough" because you get a harder edge without the brittleness, and still have the tough, malleable iron core behind the edge.

Note that there was a lot of experimenting with additives like sulfur and phosporus, which add hardness but can lead to brittleness. But using a number of metals in combination could result in a very functional sword blade, tough but sharp.

And really, even plain iron is a perfectly good metal for many uses! It just gets SO much better with some carbon.

Matthew
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
5,160
Sydney
.
It would be proper to exclude meteoritic steel weapons , some have been found in ancient Egypt
it is difficult to make soft pure Iron no matter how one go about it ,
the carbon content is always high , in primitive metallurgy the impurities were a major problem the kiln never hot enough to have a clean melt
the result was a blob of metal , this bloom was too brittle to be useful
pounding the bloom ....re-heating it ....pounding again ...etc
eventually enough carbon has been dissipated to get a bit of good metal
this was VERY expensive in manpower and fuel , most of the iron ( steel) was used for making tools

collecting enough iron ore was a major problem smelting and working it would reduce the mass to a fraction of the original
in ancient society any bit of iron was very valuable , spring grade steel suitable for swords even more so , the lowly would have spears or axes whose heads do not require much metal and of no particular quality , an axe work fine every time
lords would have the most desirable weapons of all , true steel swords , often with their own names and their own legend
the smiths who mastered their making would reach great status
the Japanese master Muramasa was a brilliant and evil man , his swords had the reputation to drive their owners to murder

On quenching , an old recipe call for the urine of a red headed virgin , it actually work fine with horse urine too , it's called nitrification and the industry use urea nowadays
village smith would traditionally piss in the quenching trough to obtain the same effect
 
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Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
2,984
MD, USA
.
It would be proper to exclude meteoritic steel weapons , some have been found in ancient Egypt
Oh, right! Yes, meteors were quite a prize, and their nickel content made for a pretty exciting natural alloy. King Tut had *one* iron dagger, and the latest analysis of it didn't seem to actually *prove* that it was meteoric iron. Nice knife, anyway!

it is difficult to make soft pure Iron no matter how one go about it ,
the carbon content is always high , in primitive metallurgy the impurities were a major problem the kiln never hot enough to have a clean melt
the result was a blob of metal , this bloom was too brittle to be useful
pounding the bloom ....re-heating it ....pounding again ...etc
eventually enough carbon has been dissipated to get a bit of good metal
this was VERY expensive in manpower and fuel , most of the iron ( steel) was used for making tools
Careful. Carbon content, which of course is invisible, is not the same as the silicates which are mixed with the ore and become slag during smelting. And slag IS visible (at least on the surface!). MELTING the iron was *not* desirable, because the iron would pick up too much carbon and become "cast iron", which can not be forged into shape. It was considered a waste product when it did occur. During normal smelting in a bloomery, the slag will melt and largely separate from the white-hot mass of iron, though a lot is still trapped in it. Thus the repeated heating and hammering of the bloom to work out the *slag*. The final *carbon* content depends on other factors (fuel, temperature, etc.). And you can add carbon after all the refining, as well, though it doesn't "soak in" very easily so you can't make big pieces of steel.

So yes, it's laborious and time-consuming and the highest-quality products were not cheap, but iron ore was pretty easy to find and the resulting metal was just too useful to ignore. Iron production became a huge industry in ancient times.

Iron did lend itself to faster production of weapons than bronze, once the basics of production became widespread. It was a couple more centuries before it was practical to make iron *armor*, since pieces that thin lose their heat too quickly for practical forging. (Modern steels can be worked cold, to a large degree, but ancient iron needs to be forged hot.) Eventually the Celts and Romans worked that out, of course!

Matthew
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
5,160
Sydney
.
Thanks Matthew , you are totally correct
the question of Steel weapons could possibly be restricted to the most prestigious and famous kind
watered steel or wootz or Damascene steel

originally from India and three thousand years old this was not done with bloomery technique only but with crucibles
it demonstrated a truly impressive mastery of metal rising to art .
in a world mad about sharp edged weapons the desire to obtain it spanned continents
ingots were exported far and wide through a serie of intermediaries then worked into weapons in far workshops
the production technique was unknown pretty much everywhere else

Toledo steel was a differing type of production , from a bloomery product , they used forge welding and repeated folding and twisting , they were famous for a very long time making the Gladius of the Roman republic legion and the Carolingian great swords

just to make things more confusing , some of the best toledo blades were made from Wootz

Damascene Technique in Metal Working
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,880
Australia
The Hittites were making smelted (not meteoritic) ferrous swords late in the second millenium BC. They know they were smelted because slag has been recovered from several sites.

Wootz dates back to the 6th C BC, so it is around 2500 years old, not 3000.
 
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M9Powell

Ad Honorem
Oct 2014
4,455
appalacian Mtns
Mass production of steel wasn't possible until the Bessemer process. I can't give you an exact date for that from memory, but can come pretty close. A Colt model 1847 is pre-Bessemer iron. A Colt model 1860 is made of Bessemer steel. Steel existed earlier, but it wasn't consistent & couldn't be mass produced.
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
2,984
MD, USA
.
...the question of Steel weapons could possibly be restricted to the most prestigious and famous kind
watered steel or wootz or Damascene steel ...
Why "restricted" to wootz? For most of Europe that was a novelty, only available in very limited quantities for top-end swords. The Roman legions that conquered parts of three continents had steel swords, but not wootz.

Good stuff, obviously! But it's far from the whole story.

Matthew
 

cachibatches

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
2,351
Mass production of steel wasn't possible until the Bessemer process. I can't give you an exact date for that from memory, but can come pretty close. A Colt model 1847 is pre-Bessemer iron. A Colt model 1860 is made of Bessemer steel. Steel existed earlier, but it wasn't consistent & couldn't be mass produced.
What about the Chinese blast furnaces?