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Breaking the Point : 17th Century choosing of a sword.

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Many people on this forum craft swords.


We make them for many reasons : for the sheet enjoyment of it, for the furthering of craftsmanship, for historical interest, and some of us for a source of income. Yet, there is one reason we will never be able to experience... making swords that are intended to do what the sword was originally made for : to defend life, and to take life. No, a customer purchasing a sword from you will never trust his very life to it. I have been researching this forgotten perspective lately. I teach historical fencing ,and will be giving a presentation at a local sword symposium about historical necessities that are no longer part of practicing the art . One of the topics I am covering is the gentlemanly choosing of a sharp sword for dueling and defense purposes. Several historical treatises address this subject, but my chosen source is 17th century French fencing master Monsieur L'Abbate's Sur L' Art En Fait D'Armes , translated into English in 1734 as The Art of Fencing,or,The use of the Small Sword.


In the first chapter , L'Abbat gives us a very practical premise , as follows below :


" Courage and Skill being often of little use without a good Weapon, I think it necessary , before I lay down the Rules for using it, to shew how to chuse a good Blade ,and how it ought to be mounted..."



He later continues on ,giving his opinion on the proper methodology of choosing a good blade:



" ... In order to chuse a good blade, three Things are to be observed : First, that the Blade have no Flaw in it, especially across, it being more dangerous than Length-way. Secondly, That it be well tempered ,which you'll know by bending it against a wall or other Place; if it bend only towards the Point; 'tis faulty , but if it bend in a semi-circular Manner ,and the Blade spring back to Straightness, 'tis a good Sign; If it remains bent it is a Fault ,tho' not so great as if it did not bend at all; for a blade that bends being of a soft Temper, seldom breaks; but a stiff One being hard tempered is easily broke .."


The next section is what I am particularly interested in :


" The third Observation is to be made by Breaking the point, and if the Part broken be of a grey Colour , the Steel is good ; if it be White 'tis not : Or you may strike the Blade with a Key or other piece of Iron , and if he gives a clear Sound, there is no hidden fault in it.... "




So there we see a most curios practice . A gentleman would not be found at fault or thought abusive if he snapped the point off a sword he was interested in. Talk about tire kicking !


My specific question :

What is indicated by the steel color L'Abbat describes? All broken steel I have seen has been a grey color. What would 'white' coloration indicate about the heat treatment? Is that a flaw that does not exist in modern alloys? I've always thought in terms of grain structure, not coloration.


I am planning on actually breaking a sword tip as part of the presentation, so I would appreciate a scientific explanation.


Any other thoughts on all this is most encouraged !




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The first thing that comes to mind is cast iron. Grey and white cast iron are classified by what the carbon inside does. Grey forms an allotrope of graphite while white forms carbides. In the grey variety, stress propagates in an array rather than along the carbide grain strands like in white. For that reason, grey cast iron can handle stress better, but I don't know how that would translate to blade steel which has significantly less carbon in it...

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I have agree with Ruben. If the text you are using hasn't been revised in a while this could be a poor translation or evidence of terminology being used differently at that point in time. The premise is very interesting though, and I look forward to responses from the seasoned members of the forum.

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Thank you for the replies so far...


Do you know what the original French text mentioned? 'White' might be a 'bad' translation.


Ruben, you bring up an excellent concern. I am not a scholar of language, however a very kind French gentleman on another forum posted the text in question in the original French translation , as follows:


"La troisième remarque c’est de faire emousser ou casser la pointe,si dans
l’endroit cassé elle est de couleur grise, le fer est bon, si elle est blanche c’est le contraire "



His own response to the possibility of mistranslation was such :


The third observation is to have the point blunted or broken [The use of the French indirect mode "faire emousser ou casser" may imply to ask the maker of the blade to do it himself and show you the section, which may imply a somewhat less destructive precess than the one explained in the English translation]. If where it is broken the colour is gray, the iron [sword in this context I think] is good, if it is white it is not"


So even from an individual who speaks French fluently, the word still translates as "white" .


Interesting notes by John in regards to cast iron... still a mystery though . Anyone have any more ideas from metalugrical standpoint?

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1. you have to be careful with colour translations - failure to take cultural considerations into account can lead to some damn fool ideas, like the notion that the greeks were r/b colourblind 'cause Homer referred to the 'wine-dark' sea... white, in most languages, refers to brightness more than a particular colour


2. watch out for appeals to authority - just 'cause this guy knew a lot about sword fighting doesn't mean he knew about smithing...


3. lighting is something to consider - before electric light, if you wanted to examine grain size you'd have to do it in natural sunlight.


my guess would be that this guy had talked to a smith, who showed him examples of large and fine grain, in bright sunlight, to illustrate the differences between bad and good heat treatment, and the author's untrained eye failed to notice the difference in grain size, but picked up on the difference in colour - the larger grained piece will reflect more light than the smaller grained one, and appear brighter : http://bladesmithsforum.com/uploads/monthly_11_2013/post-33512-0-05551000-1384753515.jpg .


I also imagine that this putative sword smith didn't actually suggest that the guy break off the tip of every sword he tried to buy, merely that this would be one way to check the heat treatment - the equivalent of modern customers who don't get why you won't let them try and stab a blade with a fresh 2000 grit finish through a car door to test it (the same customers always seem to test the edge by running there thumb along it, which can also ruin the finish, but is a lot funnier...)

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Good perspectives, Jake. The photo you attached is especially helpful .


I believe that Jake and Alan are both on the most probable track, that the grain structure of the break in a properly heat treated sword reflects light differently than one with improper heat treatment ( as Alan suggested, large, crystalline-looking sparkly white) .I especially like what Jake said about "white" in most languages referring more to brightness than to color. Excellent observation.


I may have to accept the above theories as the most likely explanation, unless anyone has thoughts to the contrary?


As a side note, I still hold to the idea that the breaking of the tip was indeed a commonplace practice in that time period,at least in France. Further research has indicated that a second French fencing master ,Sieur de Liancour, also mentions the practice of breaking the tip in his treatise, published in 1692.

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Throughout history swordsmen have made it their business to teach blade smiths what a proper sword is supposed to be like.

Sigurd hit the anvil with his newly made sword(s) to test the toughness of the blade and broke two blades before he got one that could cleave the anvil. How about that for blade abuse?

You can read some very self assured advice from fencing masters concerning size of swords, proportions of blades and hilt components and degrees of sharpness that is not supported or corresponding to what you can observe in the body of surviving weapons.

Sword masters tend to nurture their very own breed of arrogance, just like blade smiths do. It is just different content or focus for their respective pet peeves.

It might be wise to read these kinds of definite statements with a healthy dose of salt.
-What he says about the flex curvature of sword blades is pretty much rubbish, for example (to my mind, but I am only a blade smith after all ...)
Blades that bend more towards the middle tend to be wobbly in use.
Some types of blades (rapiers in particular) normally flex in the third part (foible) to allow an effective distribution of mass for a good functional balance. You also want to strong of the blade to be stiff in a fencing blade.

But reading the words of ancient masters can be fun and informative. -Just make sure to read several since they as a rule make a sport of taking opposing points of view in many ways.

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