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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Metallugical comparison of three blades: Solingen and Toledo

Metallugical comparison of three blades:  Solingen and Toledo

photo by Charles Hoffman

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In this piece we’ll be looking at metallurgical analysis of three blades from two of the most famous centres for sword production in Europe:  Solingen and Toledo.  All three of these blades come from rather late in the period;  specifically two (rapiers) identified through markings or analysis to have come out of Solingen have been dated to the 17th or 18th century, while one Toledo blade has an absolute production date of 1875 (Spanish officer’s sword).

All were forged as weapons of war, not as ceremonial or display pieces.


History and Background of Solingen swords

Solingen is a German city well known for its production of steel and blades.  Archeologists have found iron and steel smelting furnaces dating back some 2000 years. Solingen blades were much prized in Northern Europe, and were extensively traded.


History and Background of Toledo blades

The quality of blades from Toledo, Spain is well known today, and well established in history.  Indeed, weapons of superior quality — which means of both superior steel quality and smithing workmanship — have been produced in Iberian region since 500 B.C.  In fact, Hannibal used Iberian steel to defeat the Roman armies in the Punic Wars (256 B.C.);  at the time, the Romans were armed with bronze blades.  This defeat drew Rome’s attention to the steel-making centres of the region, which eventually Rome conquered, making Iberia the center of weapon production for the Empire.


Establishing the historical quality of Toledo blades

Researchers looking through 16th and 17th century documents discovered quite a bit of evidence which showed how highly Toledo blades were esteemed.  One of the first things they looked at were prices;  in the 16th century it seems there was a problem in Spain with merchants inflating prices;  so much so that the city guilds stepped in to regulate the pricing of swords (Integrating Form, Function and Technology in Ancients Swords:  The concept of quality).  On this list, which one would have to believe established realistic relative values, Toledo blades always commanded the highest prices:

“Due to conflicts with dealers inflating the prices, especially in times of higher demand occasionally the ruling bodies of the city had to fix the prices at what certain goods could be sold. In this particular case, the subjects of the regulation were sword blades, and the documents offer a list of different types, classified by their place of origin, and their corresponding price. In the two lists used for the study, Toledo is always marked prominently as the place where the most expensive blades, that we suppose of rapier type, given the context, came from.”

One of the price documents Gerner references (Metallographic study of some 17th and 18th c, European sword (rapier) blades) lists a Toledo rapier’s maximum price as 24 “reales” (Spanish “royal” silver coin);  A sword from Seville was marked as 22 reales;  A blade from Germany was 10;  One from Genoa was 8, and those from Toulouse were also 8 reales.  While an interesting comparison, one should keep in mind that the local city leaders might well have a bias and a lot of self-interest in seeing Toledo prices set higher.

Gerner also notes that the literature of the time lauds the quality of Toledo blades, including in both Spanish and European books and plays.  Even Shakespeare makes mention of Toledo steel (Othello, Merry Wives of Windsor, Romeo and Juliet).  Using descriptions, which would have been common opinion of the time, he found certain qualities repeatedly ascribed to Toledo steel, which included:

“It had to be flexible and elastic enough to bend to a near impossible degree and return to true form without any deformation. It had to keep a keen edge and a sharp point, able to cut and pierce through materials that ranged from the difficult to the impossible, and had to be shiny and stay this way for a long time. What can be concluded from this example is, that all the virtues for a blade to be perceived as ‘good’ were related to its mechanical properties, which allowed it to perform its intended task with a varied degree of excellence.” Integrating Form, Function and Technology in Ancients Swords:  The concept of quality


Analysis of 17th / 18th century rapiers

The two blades examined in Metallographic study of some 17th and 18th c, European sword (rapier) blades are described as “blade parts”, each part being roughly from the same section of each blade, from the tang to about 1/3 of the total length of the blade.  These were used so a to produce an equal comparison.

One blade was marked SOLINGEN, seen below


Solingen blade, with testing points marks in frame “b”. From Metallographic study of some 17th and 18th c, European sword (rapier) blades


This blade displayed a laminar construction near the tang (a steel core wrapped in carbonized iron), changing to a wholly steel core and edge as one moved up just past the tang.  The micro-structures making up the tang and base of the blade were perlite and ferrous iron, with the actual core and blade edges were found to be tempered martinsite,  capable of sustaining an extremely sharp cutting edge.  An indication of a core weld was found, suggesting the core may actually have been composed to two pieces of steel welded together.  The carbon content of the core and edges was .05%.

The other blade bore the hallmark of TOLEDO and AYALLA, suggesting it was made by a famous Toledo smith, Tomas de Ayalla.  This presented an identification problem, as this 17th century blade was made long after his death in 1583.  His name was widely used in counterfeits The image of the blade appears below:

Ayalla blade part

Illicit Ayalla of Toledo blade, with testing points marks in frame “b”. From Metallographic study of some 17th and 18th c, European sword (rapier) blades

Upon testing, this blade was found to be very similar to the SOLINGEN marked rapier.  The construction of the tang and base-area of the blade was layered strips of carbonized iron over top of a steel core.  The core of this blade is obviously two sections of steel skillfully welded together, likely a longer bar which was cut in two then welded together.  The carbon content of this item varied somewhat, but averaged .05%.   Again, similar to the SOLINGEN blade, the micro-structures found were perlite and ferrous iron in the tang and near the base, slowly changing over to marteniste as the tip was neared.

Unfortunately, the research did not test for hardness, but instead only compared chemistry and structures.

In conclusion, the paper states the very great likelihood that the false AYALLA marked sword was actually made in Solingen, given the similarities in carbon content, construction, and  micro-structure formations which suggest a similar forging and tempering process was used on them.


Analysis of a 19th century Toledo sword

Toledo officer's swrod

from: Metallographic Examination of a Toledo Steel Sword

By way of comparison, we will examine the research of Ruiz and Ineists’ A Metallographic Examination of a Toledo Steel Sword.  In this case they obtained a broken blade verified as being made at the Royal Manfactory in Toledo, said blade presently owned by the Military Museum in Madrid;  one side of the blade is marked:

Fª DE TOLEDO 1 8 7 5“.

In the image to the right, the letter “A” shows the blade before testing.  “B” shows the segments cut out for scanning and testing.  “C” shows the parts of the blade after cutting for testing purposes.  The sword was obviously in bad condition, with the nickle-plated surfaced heavily tarnished.


Analysis of the transverse pieces showed well-defined structures throughout it’s entire length, consisting of an extremely high-carbon (.o8%)  outer layer surrounding a much softer core steel.   Perlite made up the general micro-structure of the hard exterior layer, with martensite structures appearing all along the hard cutting edge.  Commenting on the forging process to achieve these formations, the author’s analysis and examination of historical texts suggest:

The manufacturing method was mainly based on the use of three superposed steel layers which were forged when hot by means of silicates as a fluxing agent. The two outer ones consist of an ultra-hard steel of a carbon content (0.80 mass% of C) close to an eutectoid, which enclose a soft iron core of a correspondingly lower C content. The composite was forged when hot until a desired blade shape was completed so as to achieve a sandwich-like structure of the steel layers. Finally, the sword was quenched in a salt liquor and was then hardened, by which a tough material of a negligible risk of rupture was successfully obtained despite the clearly increased level of hardness.

The mechanical properties of the blade, with very hard edges and softer steel sides and core,  would have made an excellent fencing sword,  as Ruiz et. al. note:

The blade has ideal properties for use in fencing matches, including a high elasticity based on the excellent toughness of the soft iron core, which combines with an enormous mechanical durability of the outer layers. This produced an ideal weapon which is efficient in both slashes causing sabre wounds and thrusts using the blade tip.


Summing up

The major difference between the Solingen and Toledo blades our sources examined appears to have been the use of a solid core in the Toledo blade, as opposed to the welded core in the Solingen.  The Toldeo blade had a slightly higher carbon content to the exterior steel (.08% over .05 average for the Solingen).  Finally, the softer core of the Toledo blade extends almost the entire length of the blade, with only the outer layers consisting of dense martensite structures, while both of the Solingen blades show tempered martensite cores.  This comparison suggests the Toledo blade — with a softer core — would be more “flexible”, and capable of absorbing more shock without causing the blade to break, as might happen with the harder but more fragile martensite core.



One Comment

  1. Good paper, but you make a common error. The carbon content for the steel would have had to have been 0.5 per cent C to produce an effective cutting edge, not .05 per cent, which is considerably lower in carbon than modern non-hardenable mild steel alloys. The quoted paragraphs do get the percentages correct.

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