Samurai Swords: Ancient Metals Technology

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Ferrous Metals

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With her remarkable swordsmanship in Kill Bill 1 and Kill Bill 2, we have Uma Thurman — and that killer Hattori Hanzo samurai sword — to thank for some of the best sword fights in recent movie history. Then again, critics could also praise the swordplay in Seven Samurai. And The Princess Bride. And even Highlander. What other films are we missing?

Whether you consider samurai swords an ancient art form, quick entertainment from Hollywood, or the wonder of all metals technology, the truth remains that the creators and crafters of samurai swords sure know what they’re doing with steel. Dr. Rick Vinci, a materials scientist and engineer at Lehigh University, tells PBS in an interview on the intricate weapons that the elemental mixtures in samurai swords offer an excellent example of metals engineering. “One can mass-produce swords, but one cannot mass-produce swords that are also objects of art,” he says, and explains the complicated requirements for a perfect samurai sword: the treatments, the chemistry, the right tools.

“Inside the sword we have lower-carbon steel, and its primary property is that it is quite tough,” Vinci notes. “If there is a small crack introduced in the hard blade, as is probably inevitable in the course of battle when you are hitting armor, instead of that crack running through all the blade the way it would on a single piece of glass, it goes a little way and then the core steel arrests or stops the crack.”

An understanding of metals is essential to form the ideal sword. According to Vinci, “The person designing the sword, or for that matter designing a girder to build a building, has to know exactly what the requirements are for that particular piece of metal. For certain applications, he might need it to be both very hard and very strong. For another application, he might want it to be very ductile, very reformable. And for a third application, maybe somewhere in between. Maybe you need corrosion resistance, because it will be built into a ship that will sail on the salty oceans.”

For more information on the metals in samurai swords, check out this interview from PBS. Clearly, metals technology has always been a hit, even in ancient societies!

–Amy Edwards

Comment (1)

  1. Samurai Dave says:

    It’s true that the real Japanese Swords are pieces of art but these days, it’s not necessary to spend several 1000 dollars to get a nice decent sword.

    The market become more open to the average collecioner or practitioner altough a real Nihonto is still a dream of many of us 😮

    Dave

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